Blu-ray Review: Blackmail

Blackmail Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length:

Silent Version – 01:16:07

‘Talkie’ Version – 01:25:47

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1557 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio:

Silent Version – 1.33:1

‘Talkie’ Version – 1.20:1 / 1.33:1

Bitrate:

Silent Version – 32.85 Mbps

‘Talkie’ Version – 30.92 Mbps (1.33:1) / 30.73 Mbp (1.20:1 Version)

Notes: This “special edition” Blu-ray will also include the rare silent version of the film accompanied by a new score by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. This is the first time either version of this film has appeared on Blu-ray in North America. A DVD edition of this title is also available. In fact, the DVD edition is the film’s North American debut on that format as well. Blackmail has only been available previously on unofficial “public domain” labels, and the transfers used for these releases were horrendous. Of course, none of this takes into account the various VHS and Laserdisc releases of this title since those are dead formats.

Title

Blackmail: Alfred Hitchcock’s First “Talkie”

“Making a talkie film I had only just completed as a ‘silent’ …gave me a tremendous advantage over most other directors. For one thing, I was able to improve on my original ideas; and for another, I was not handicapped by having a stagey subject to handle.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The introduction of sound revolutionized the motion picture industry, but it seemed that the so-called “talkies” were a one-step progression and a two-step retreat (at least in the beginning). It completely changed the way that films were shot, and the new methods made the camera difficult to move. Worse, actors were glued to stationary positions so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Suddenly, sound recording took precedence over a film’s visual aesthetic. It is no wonder that the British film industry faced this new art-form with a certain amount of anxiety. It would mean building expensive soundstages, buying sound equipment, and completely relearning how to efficiently shoot a motion picture. This, of course, doesn’t even take into consideration the challenges faced by exhibitors—and what if talkies were a passing fad?

Luckily, Alfred Hitchcock worked best when he was challenged and often turned technical limitations into creative triumphs. It was impossible for the director to know for certain if British International Pictures would be prepared for a sound production in time for his next project, but most sources agree that he planned the film as both a sound and silent production just to be on the safe side. He decided to embrace the new innovation instead of being threatened by it, and the result was probably his strongest effort since The Lodger. Of course, this is at least partially due to the fact that Blackmail would return him to the thriller genre.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett.

Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Bennett

CHARLES BENNETT’S ORIGINAL STAGE PLAY

In fact, the film is actually based on a stage play by Charles Bennett—a man who would eventually become an instrumental collaborator on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940).

“Being a somewhat conceited individual, I like to believe that I subscribed in no small way to Hitch’s reputation. In fact, I know that it was my sense of suspense which moved Hitch to enlist me as his regular writer for seven of his early sound movies beginning with the ‘FIRST SUPER TALKIE,’ Blackmail (1929), for British International Pictures (BIP)…

His film was adapted from my second play… which during its London run caught the fancy of the rotund but highly talented young director. Hitch loved the story—his kind of stuff (and mine). Attempted seduction. Murder. The young innocent murderess being blackmailed. The switch in which the blackmailer himself becomes the suspect of the murder. Suspense.

Anyway, in 1928 Hitchcock had BIP lease the film rights to Blackmail…” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Of course, this is a slightly misleading quote, because—by his own admission—Bennett didn’t actually assist the director in adapting his play into a film. However, his influence is certainly felt in Hitchcock’s film version, and it is worth examining the origins of Blackmail for this reason. Luckily, much of what is known about this subject can be extracted from a short section from Charles Bennett’s autobiography:

“[Al Woods] advertised for authors to send their manuscripts for review, and to my satisfaction he chose my play ‘Blackmail’ from among three hundred submissions. The play was based on the experiences of a girl of whom I was once very fond, an adventure she had after attending the Chelsea Arts Ball. ‘Blackmail’ opened at the Globe Theater on February 28, 1928, [was] produced by Raymond Massey, and starring Tallulah Bankhead, then in her mid-twenties.

I remember that during the run Tallulah Bankhead invited me into her dressing room for a drink—she was stark naked. It wasn’t an invitation to an affair; it was just the way she was. But the play met a stormy reception, as Tallulah’s enthusiasts rushed the gallery stairs and the police were called. There was press notoriety concerning her role, then the play flopped. Critics remarked that if this was the best of several hundred plays, exactly how bad must the others have been? I had to go around apologizing, eventually replying to the criticism in a letter to the Sunday Express. When it was mentioned that I was the author, people thought it was funny. Fortunately, S. Rossiter Shepherd, Film critic for the Sunday People, published the truth about the miserable business, revealing how the original play had been hacked about and spoiled by Al Woods. This cleared me, as I could not really say a word in my own defense without repercussions among producers…

An interesting side note: I was actually knifed during a June 1928 performance of ‘Blackmail’ at the Regent Theatre, King’s Cross. I was playing the artist Peter Hewitt and, during the rape scene, the bread knife slipped from the grasp of the actress Violet Howard and sliced into my left ear. I received treatment at the Royal Free Hospital and then was able to return to the stage, head bandaged, for the curtain call.

When the original version went on tour with multiple touring companies, it proved the success it should have been in London’s West End. Thank God. One reviewer wrote kindly of me, ‘His object is to show the moral murderousness of blackmailers, and he succeeds vividly. He not only shows the tortures of the blackmailed, but lays bare also the state of mind of the blackmailer. The subtlety of alternating drama and psychology demands from the cast an unfaltering accuracy of interpretation.’” –Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Tallulah Bankhead 1928

Tallulah Bankhead portrayed Alice White in the Globe’s 1928 stage production of Blackmail. She would later portray Connie Porter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.

It isn’t known whether Alfred Hitchcock attended one of these performances of Blackmail, but it certainly seems likely considering that he was an avid patron of the theatre, and this particular subject would have appealed to his tastes. However, Bennett’s memoir raises an important question. Which ending was included in the text that Hitchcock and his team used as the source for the eventual film? If you remember, the play was produced with two endings:

“One encounters a problem attempting to study [the play’s] third act. The version that Al Woods insisted on, and which the press panned, is presently unknown. Because Tallulah Bankhead’s fans behaved riotously, one suspects that Alice’s integrity was compromised by Al Wood’s version. But Charles said the play reverted back to its original ending on tour and was then successful.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Did Hitchcock have access to both the Al Woods and the Charles Bennett ending? This question is impossible to answer, and it might not matter very much since the play’s ending was jettisoned in favor of the film’s museum chase.

Even so, such changes should not keep us from examining the published script (which was provided to us by John Bennett as he is currently the holder of all rights to the play). First of all, it is interesting to note that the characters have different names in the original play than their cinematic counterparts, and the reasons for these changes seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, Alice maintains her given name in the film, but her surname has been changed from Jarvis to White. Her detective boyfriend maintained the surname of Webber, but his given name was changed from Harold to Frank. We learn from the play that the blackmailer’s given name is Ian. He is referenced only as “Tracy” in the film. Finally, Mr. Crewe (the doomed artist) was originally named Peter Hewitt. It is also worth noting that Alice has a brother named Albert in the play that never appears in Hitchcock’s film.

The first act of Bennett’s play takes place entirely in the artist’s apartment, and there are two lengthy scenes that play out as one in real time. The first of these scenes has Tracy (the eventual blackmailer) entering the vacant residence uninvited. It is clear that he is intoxicated, and he soon makes himself right at home. The louse even sits down to eat a meal that is laying out after helping himself to a beer that can only aggravate his particular condition. However, these actions are soon interrupted by the artist’s landlady (who is named “Mrs. Cook”), and she quickly tosses him out after their brief exchange makes it clear that he is a former resident who once lived in the building before being evicted. It seems that he was never able to pay his rent. The landlady puts everything back into order, turns out the lights, and escorts the man out of the building (we hear them leave).

This scene is twelve pages in length (the entire Act is less than thirty-five pages), and has absolutely no counterpart in the film. Instead, Hitchcock opens on the arrest of an unknown man, and then follows the detective (Harold/Frank) out on a date with an annoyed Alice. Alice picks a fight with Harold/Frank and ends up leaving with the artist, and this new couple runs into Tracy on their walk to his apartment. However, the next scene in Bennett’s play does have a counterpart in the film.

After the landlady and Tracy are heard leaving, the audience waits in “comparative darkness” for a time before “a distant church clock is heard chiming the hour … twelve strikes.” This sound is followed by the sound of someone entering the building, ascending the stairs, and approaching the door before the artist enters cautiously:

[…He strikes a match for illumination. He speaks in a whisper over his shoulder.]

Peter: It’s all right. Come in.

[Alice Jarvis comes forward out of the darkness of the passage. She passes Peter and advances hesitatingly into the room. The match splutters and goes out and in the darkness Peter closes the door—quietly turning the key and pocketing it afterwards. He speaks to cover the noises of the lock.]

Wait a moment. I’ll switch on the light.

[He strikes another match and going to the divan-bed switches on the red shaded light beside it. He doesn’t switch on the center light, probably because he knows that the more subdued illumination is more suitable for his purpose…]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is painfully obvious from the outset that the artist is on the make and probably not entirely trustworthy here. Whether this is also true of the film version is up for argument, but the play proceeds in a more straightforward and blatant manner than in the film. In any case, Bennett’s stage directions proceed to paint Alice as trying to hide her nervousness, and states that she regrets coming into his apartment.

[…He comes down and takes her caressingly by the shoulders. His voice is low and always seductively suggestive.]

Peter: Darling thing to come up here.

Alice [nervously]: I don’t know why I did.

Peter [with meaning]: I do.

[Alice looks at him, not sure of his trend and he smiles knowingly. She senses danger and lowering her eyes, breaks away towards the window, changing the subject as she does so.]

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alice sees something or someone outside of the window and inquires as to who the man was that addressed him as they were entering the building. We learn that Tracy is always bothering him for money, and she tells him that he is still hanging around outside. This doesn’t surprise the artist in the least as this seems to be his habit. This goes on for about a page, but the Artist soon takes the conversation back into uncomfortable territory.

[…She realizes that she must keep the conversation going if ‘unpleasantness’ is to be avoided and plunges into it.]

Alice: It’s — It’s a nice room.

Peter: Like it?

Alice [Looking around.]: Yes. I — I Like your big window.

Peter: Oh — That’s where I work.

Alice: Yes, I knew that — by the easel.

Peter: Do you paint then?

Alice: No — I wouldn’t know how to begin.

Peter [smiling]: I see I’ll have to teach you…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It would be reasonable for anyone who is familiar with Hitchcock’s film versions of Blackmail to assume that this leads into a scene wherein Alice’s hand is guided into painting a primitive nude, but the subject is immediately dropped here as the artist begins making himself a drink. However, this moment still has importance since it would have planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind for that particular exchange in his film. The line, “I see I’ll have to teach you” undoubtedly suggested that bit of business.

Bennett’s play takes another route. As Peter/Mr. Crewe makes himself a drink, he offers one to Alice only to discover that she is a teetotaler. He continues to apply some light pressure on her to no avail, so he instead offers her a cigarette. She doesn’t smoke either. This refusal to accept anything seems important as it should send a message to the man that his goals aren’t her own. The topic of conversation soon turns to her job, and we learn that she works selling clothes at “Horridge’s.” The man tries at every turn to steer the conversation where he wants it to go until he finally insists that she take off her coat and relax:

Alice: Oh, but I must be going in a minute.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice [quickly]: Yes. You see — it’s some way down the road.

Peter: But I’ll see you home. There’s nobody sitting up for you, is there?

Alice: No

[Too late. She wishes she had said ‘Yes.’]

Peter: Got a key?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: Then what are you worrying about? Here — Give me that coat.

Alice: But I really oughtn’t to —

Peter: Silly. Come on —

[He undoes her coat and in spite of her protests, removes it, revealing a pale blue dance frock beneath. It is short, close fitting, and very pretty in a simple way. Poor Alice, though, feeling positively naked before Peter’s gaze, looks down, abashed. Peter smiles and puts the coat on a chair by the table, then comes back and takes her hand. She speaks in feeble protest.]

Alice:I wish you wouldn’t make me take it off.

Peter: Why?

Alice: Oh, I don’t know. I feel so — so silly without it, somehow.

Peter: You don’t look it. Besides — you hadn’t got it on at the dance.

Alice: It wasn’t the same there.

Peter: How do you mean?

Alice [looking down]: Oh, I don’t know.

Peter [smiling at her]: Sit down.

Alice [nervously]: No. — I don’t want to sit down.

Peter: Of course you do. You must be tired out. [He sinks on the end of the bed and draws her to him.] Come on. — Don’t be shy.

Alice [terribly self-conscious]: I — I can’t help being shy. It’s — It’s the way you look at me, I think.

Peter: I won’t look at you then. [He draws her down onto his knee and she hangs her head, half ashamedly. Peter decided to adopt more subtle methods.] Did you enjoy the dance?

Alice: Yes. Did you?

Peter: Rather. I met you.

Alice [pleased but abashed]: Oh!

Peter: I’ve seen you there before, you know?

Alice: Have you?

Peter: Two or three times.

Alice [shyly]: I’ve seen you too — often.

Peter [a little flattered]: Have you—I say, that’s splendid! By the way, who was the fellow who looked so annoyed when you danced with me?

Alice: Oh. [She giggles a little.] That was Harold.

Peter: Harold?

Alice [looking down]: My young man.

Peter: Oh — So you’ve got a young man, have you?

Alice [glancing up shyly]: Of course.

Peter: Going to marry him?

Alice: One day.

Peter: Lucky beggar. What’s his job?

Alice: Well, he used to be a policeman, but he’s a detective now.

Peter: I say, that sounds imposing. Is he much older than you are?

Alice: Only six years. We’ve been walking out ever since I was fifteen.

Peter [lifting his eyebrows]: And you’re not tired of him yet?

Alice: Tired? Why, of course not. What funny things you say.

Peter [ruefully]: He didn’t seem to like the look of me much.

Alice [giggling again]: No, he didn’t. You should have heard some of the things he was saying about you out in the passage. We had quite a row.

Peter: A row?

Alice: Well — words anyway. That’s why I let you see me home — to teach him a lesson.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This discussion about Harold may have suggested to Hitchcock and his team the idea for Alice’s row with Frank in the restaurant. However, the film suggests that Alice was expecting to see the artist there, and she starts another row after finding him to ensure an opportunity to meet with this handsome stranger. As a result, her motives are less clear in the film version. It might be argued that this ambiguity makes the following episodes more interesting and sets up his decidedly grim ending.

In any case, this conversation continues as Alice and Peter discuss their former encounters at various dance-related events. We learn that Peter never approached her because she had always been with Harold before he goes on to insult his dancing abilities. Belittling her boyfriend is the precursor to asking her on a date, but she tells him that she couldn’t possibly see him in this manner. He continues to press the issue and insists that she see him again and assures her that Harold would never know about it. She tentatively relents, but it is unclear if this is merely her way of ending this topic of conversation or if she actually wants to see him. There are several more pages of Peter’s attempt to wear her down before he asks Alice if Harold’s jealousy was the only reason that she left with him.

Alice [looking down]: I — I’ve forgotten.

Peter: Perhaps I can help you remember. [He lowers his voice.] Was it — Was it because you wanted the same thing as I did?

Alice: I don’t know what you wanted.

Peter [meaningly]: Shall I tell you?

Alice [scenting danger]: No.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: It — It mightn’t be something I’d like.

Peter: Oh — You’d like it all right.

Alice: No. [She feels Peter’s gaze on her head and looks up, realizing desperately that she must keep talking.] I don’t know why I came up really. I — I think I thought it would be funny.

Peter: Funny?

Alice: Yes — You know. To — To go into a man’s room at night. I’ve never been in a man’s rooms [sic] before — at night.

Peter [congratulating himself on the way she is playing into his hands]: Never?

Alice: No.

Peter: So you were looking for new experiences, were you?

Alice: I — I suppose I was.

Peter: And you thought you’d start with me?

Alice [not knowing what to say]: Er — Yes.

Peter [softly]: I’m flattered. [Alice lowers her eyes and Peter smiles.] Are you — Are you glad you decided to start with me?

Alice [breathing quickly]: I — I don’t know.

Peter: Don’t know?

Alice: Not yet —

Peter [pretending to see a meaning which isn’t intended.]: Oh — I shan’t disappoint you. — You darling little devil.

[His face is very close to hers. She is trembling. He lifts her chin with his hand and looks into her eyes, then leans forward to kiss her lips. She realizes his intention though and draws her head back quickly — speaking as she does so —]

Alice: No.

Peter [taken aback]: Why?

Alice: I don’t want to be kissed.

Peter: Don’t want — ? But you didn’t mind half an hour ago at the town hall.

Alice: That was different.

Peter: I don’t see it.

Alice: It was.

Peter: Why?

Alice: You know. It’s — It’s not right now we’re alone.

Peter: Now we’re — But I don’t see — [He stares at her for a moment, then his eyes light up with well-affected amazement.] Why — I believe you’re afraid of me. —

Alice [quickly]: No I’m not.

Peter: I believe you are. Why?

Alice: I’ve told you — I’m not.

Peter: Really and truly?

Alice [nodding]: Yes.

Peter: Then — [He looks at her fixedly for a moment, then speaks very seductively.] Then prove it — by letting me kiss you.

Alice [frightened]: No.

Peter [His lips are very close to hers.]: Prove it —

Alice: I’ve asked you not to —

Peter [very softly]: Silly — [Alice is breathing quickly—her breast heaving. For a moment Peter gazes into her eyes—then he draws her to him and their lips meet. There is a long pause—then Peter speaks again—his voice very low.] Stay with me tonight.

Alice [shrinking]: No —

Peter: You’ll like it as much as I do. — I promise you that.

Alice: You know I can’t.

Peter: Why not?

Alice: Well — We — We’re not married.

Peter: Does that matter?

Alice: You know it does. Besides — I’m not that sort of girl.

Peter: What sort?

Alice: The sort you want me to be.

Peter [As if puzzled by her attitude]: But I don’t understand. I — I’m not trying to insult you, you know. I’m asking you to stay because — Well, because I like you.

Alice: I can’t stay.

Peter: You mean—you don’t want to?

Alice: Yes.

Peter: You don’t like me?

Alice: I never said so.

Peter: Then why — ?

Alice: Oh — You don’t understand. [She shakes her head.] I do like you. — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. It’s — It’s not because it’s you. It would be just the same whoever it was. It’s just — I’m not that sort. You know what I mean, don’t you?

Peter [after a slight pause]: I suppose I do. You mean — You mean you’d like to stay, but you feel you oughtn’t to.

Alice: Not quite that.

Peter: What then?

Alice: Oh — Can’t you see?

Peter: No.

Alice: Well, I’m going to be married one day.

Peter: I don’t see what that’s got to do with it.

Alice: It’s got a lot — [Simply.] You see — I’d like my husband to be the first man I ever — You know what I mean.

Peter [slowly]: Y—es. [Pausing reflectively, then smiles and rises. Going to the fireplace — lighting a cigarette.] Afraid I can’t see your point of view, you know.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The kiss in this portion of the scene may have suggested the threatening kiss in Hitchcock’s film versions, but the scene has a later kiss as well. It seems likely that the endless dialogue would have been cut in any case as it would have been too direct to pass the censors, but Hitchcock was also planning a film intended as a silent endeavor! He had to come up with a more visual means of seduction, and dialogue had to be both simple and brief. Hitchcock was prone to cinematic means of expression, and Bennett’s play was written for the stage. It’s difficult to imagine him taking this approach as he disliked “filmed theatre.”

In the play, the pair argues about whether Alice’s Victorian values are outdated and whether marriage is a worthwhile institution. Obviously, Peter is a man who isn’t going to respect her wishes if they get in the way of his own desires. Peter argues that their escapades wouldn’t be a sin. “What do you think we were sent into the world for? Not to sit and look at each other… The whole thing is a matter of conscience, and if you have a healthy mind, that needn’t bother you much. … Marriage laws were instituted by evil-minded old puritans—too damned prurient to see that if young people loved each other, they’d stick together anyway!” His argument has no effect. In fact, Alice outwits him:

Alice: If they loved each other! [She thinks it over for a minute—then looks at Peter.] Yes. But you don’t love me.

Peter: How do you know that?

Alice: I do know.

Peter: Well — I like you anyway — More than any girl I’ve met for years.

Alice: But you said – ‘If young people loved each other.’

Peter [realizing that he has made a slip.]: Well — You know what I mean.

Alice: Yes. — I think I do. [She speaks very simply.] And I think I agree with you too. If young people loved each other it might be different. Maybe marriage wouldn’t matter so much, then. But you don’t love me. —

Peter [uncomfortably—feeling he has lost ground.]: Well — not exactly — but — [He forces a smile.] Well — you don’t love me for the matter of fact.

Alice: I haven’t offered to stay.

Peter [flinching]: Now you are being cruel…”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Peter tries insisting that he does love her out of sheer desperation. When it becomes clear that he isn’t winning her over, he turns away and broods like a child. Soon after this moment, Alice announces that she will be going. Her words seem to set off some sort of trigger in the man’s ego, and “he turns to look at her. The fact that she has repulsed him has only made her more desirable in his eyes.” This leads to a second kissing moment that may have also helped to suggest the scenes in Hitchcock’s film versions.

Peter: Not yet.

Alice: Why not?

Peter: There’s something else I want to say.

Alice: What?

[Peter is staring at her. He is obviously losing control of himself. He takes her hand—drawing nearer.]

Peter: You know what it is —

Alice: I don’t.

Peter: I — I want you.

Alice [frightened again]: No.

Peter: I do. [He is breathing very quickly.] Do you know how beautiful you are? Do you know?

Alice: Don’t. —

Peter: I can’t help it. — I want you — so much.

Alice [moved by his obvious sincerity]: You mustn’t say that. —

Peter: But it’s true. Alice —

[Their faces are close together. Suddenly, Peter takes her in his arms and kisses her passionately. For a moment, she doesn’t resist. Peter’s hand drops caressingly to her knee and he leans over—thrusting her back on the cushions. Suddenly though, she gasps and her hands beat him convulsively. She tears herself away—speaking quickly as she does so.]

Alice: No — Not like that.

Peter: Like what?

Alice: Like that. [She is obviously very frightened and she is rubbing her hand quickly backwards and forwards across her mouth.] I’ve never been kissed like that before. — It’s — It’s wrong.

Peter: It isn’t.

Alice: It is.

Peter: Nonsense. Besides — you liked it.

Alice: I didn’t.

Peter: You did. D’you think I don’t know?

Alice [hysterically]: I didn’t like it. How dare you talk to me like that. —

Peter [nervous at the noise she is making]: Here — For God’s sake keep your voice down. —

Alice: What — ! [She stares at him for a moment—arrested by his tone—then, with great effort, she steadies herself.] Alright. I will. You needn’t hear me anymore.

Peter: What do you mean? [Alice doesn’t reply. She turns away from him and snatching her coat from the chair she wraps it quickly ‘round her shoulders. Her face is hard and set. Peter, realizing that she is going, speaks repentantly.] But look here, Alice. — I didn’t intend to —

[But Alice has crossed quickly to the door and he tails off weakly as he reads the determination in her eyes. He pauses — not quite sure what to do. Alice tries the door — finds it locked — and faces him again. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: This door is locked.

Peter [dully]: Is it?

Alice: You know it is. You locked it.

Peter [morosely]: Well?

Alice: When?

Peter: In the dark—before I switched on the light.

Alice: Why?

Peter: Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t want us to be disturbed by my landlady — that was all.

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: But look here —

Alice: Give me the key.

Peter: You’re really going then?

Alice: Yes. Give me the key.

[They are facing each other. Peter stares at her for a moment, then gives in and lowers his eyes. He slowly puts his hand to his pocket and takes out the key. He sinks on to the end of the bed couch — looks at her again — then throws the key to the ground at his feet. He speaks sullenly. ]

Peter: Oh, blast you then — take it.

[Alice looks at him disdainfully for a moment, comes down to pick up the key. Peter watches her resentfully. He is breathing in quick gasps — evidently not master of himself yet again. He has intended to let her go but her defiant carriage and steady eyes are too much for him. His lips curl into a twisted smile — desire and bitterness warring — then, suddenly, as she stoops to pick up the key, he covers it with his foot. His voice is quiet but hoarse with passion.]

No. Why should I let you go?

Alice [taken aback]: What?

Peter [his eyes fixed on her]: You knew what you were coming to when you came in here tonight. —

Alice [frightened]: What do you mean? Give me that key.

Peter: No.

Alice: Give me that key — !

[She makes a dart for it but peter’s hand shoots out and seizes her wrist. She writhes as he twists it and her coat slips from her shoulders and falls to the ground.]

Peter: You knew —

Alice [in agony]: Let me go —

Peter: A girl knows what to expect when she comes into a man’s room at night.

Alice: Let me go.

Peter: I’m damned if I do.

Alice: Let me go, I say —

Peter: No. You’ve been playing me up. — It’s my turn now.

Alice: Oh — !

[Thoroughly frightened she is struggling desperately by this time. Suddenly she stoops forward and bites his hand. He lets go her wrists with an exclamation of disgust.]

Peter: God! You cat!

[Alice, free for a moment, darts away across the room — but Peter is just behind her. He seizes her frock at the neck but it tears right down revealing pretty ‘Cami-knickers’ beneath. Having lost her momentarily, he sways drunkenly almost falling — evidently the result of intense emotional excitement — and Alice, seizing her opportunity reaches the table and turns on him with her back to it. But Peter is after her again.]

Alice: Keep away from me —

Peter: What —

Alice: Keep away. I’ll shout for help.

Peter [closing with her]: No you won’t — you damned little cheat.

Alice [fighting desperately]: You—You—Help!!

Peter [thrusting his hand over her mouth]: Shut up — Blast you —

[Alice tries to scream but can’t. For a moment they are struggling fiercely—then Peter has her in his arms and is kissing her wildly, Alice is gasping for breath, but Peter is forcing her farther and farther back on to the table. He is obviously carried away with passion and doesn’t know what he is doing. SUDDENLY Alice’s right hand is disengaged, and somehow THE BREAD KNIFE IS IN IT! Peter tries to seize her hand, but it is too late. The knife whips through the air and a moment later is reeling back with an ugly wound in the throat. Alice drops the knife and staggers away from the table. Peter is writhing horribly — one hand to his neck — another to his heart. He falls but rises again. Alice watches him — horror stricken. He falls across the bed and for a moment is writhing in his death agony — then he lies quite still. Alice stares at the form on the bed for a while—her eyes wide with terror. Presently she speaks—intense fear in her voice.]

Alice: What’s the matter? What’s the matter with you? You’re trying to frighten me — aren’t you? [She draws a little nearer—speaking very appealingly.] Aren’t you? [She draws nearer still and her eyes dilate. She leans over, and putting out her hand, touches the dead man’s face, but snatches it back again with a stifled scream as she comes in contact with blood. She shrinks away from the bed — agony in her voice.] Oh—I didn’t mean to do it. You shouldn’t have — You shouldn’t have tried to —

[Her voice is shaking with fright and emotion and she tails off weakly. For a while she stands gazing at the silent form — obviously in a quandary as to what to do next, Presently she goes to the window and looks out furtively—then comes back to the bed again. She stands there for a moment — still undecided — then, suddenly, she makes up her mind. She picks her coat up quickly and draws it about her — gets the key — crosses to the reading lamp and switches it off — goes to the door and opens it stealthily — looks ‘round once more — then passes out into the blackness of the passage, closing the door behind her. For a while the creaking of the stairs is heard as she descends, and presently the closing of the front door is discernible. The room is left in darkness again as in the opening of the act — the hazy moonlight striking across the bed, just revealing the silent for that lies there. The distant church clock is chiming the hour again — and anon, the heavy stroke of one is heard.

There is a pause. Then the sound of gravel is heard being thrown from below and rattling on the window pane is heard — Tracy — trying to attract the attention of Peter Hewitt. After another pause, the rattle of the gravel on the pane is heard again.]

THE CURTAIN FALLS.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

There are obviously momentary similarities between the play and the Hitchcock versions, but there are also radical differences that go beyond the reduced dialogue, the off-screen nature of the murder, and the basic staging. The introduction of the clown painting accounts for a major addition to Bennett’s text, and it becomes a motif that carries through to the very final film. The aftermath of the murder is radically different in Hitchcock’s film. The film’s Alice is absolutely stunned and noticeably less at herself than the Alice of the play.

However, Bennett’s second act contains a curious amalgam of obvious similarities and major differences to Hitchcock’s adaptation. Some of these differences may at first seem rather arbitrary, but closer analysis will clearly show that these minor alterations change the manner in which scenes that are taken (almost) directly from the play are experienced by an audience.

First of all, Hitchcock alters the characterization of Alice’s parents and omits the character of Albert (Alice’s brother). However, it might be argued that the character of her brother has been replaced with the gossiping customer as Albert is responsible for gossiping about the murder in the play’s second act. Bennett describes Alice’s father as “fat, fifty, ponderous, dogmatic, and extremely like a sea lion. He has a tremendous respect for the profundity of his own wisdom and a child-like, if entirely erroneous, belief that he is… a wit.” Meanwhile, her mother is characterized as “an unsympathetic woman of forty-five or so,” and claims that “she might have been good hearted and human enough” if she had married anyone else. Instead, “she has developed a hard and nagging disposition. She takes great delight in scandal (other people’s), is sycophantish [sic] towards her betters and has a very strong ‘respectability complex.’” Hitchcock’s film reduces the importance of these characters but also makes them more sympathetic.

This portion of Bennett’s play also calls into question the validity of scholarly criticism about Joan Barry’s accent as inappropriate for “a cockney shop girl.” A study of the play’s text reveals that while Mr. Jarvis/Mr. White has a thick cockney accent, both Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White and Alice speak in a more proper manner (although this is less true of the mother). What’s more, there is a casual mention of the sacrifices made for Alice’s education, so Alice probably received speech training as part of her school’s curriculum. One could certainly argue a case for either point of view.

More interesting than this triviality is the fact that Alfred Hitchcock has Alice sneaking into bed and evading scrutiny about her late arrival while the play opens on her parents as they worry about her whereabouts. We learn that it is four o’clock in the afternoon and that she has been missing for sixteen hours. It is instantly clear that her mother is more concerned about the possibility of a potential scandal than she is about Alice’s safety. She is painted as an extremely unpleasant person. Of course, the same cannot be said about Sara Allgood’s portrayal in the film.

Albert (Alice’s brother) soon returns from his search for Alice and has no news to report about his sister’s whereabouts, but he has learned about the murder of a “young artist bloke” who was discovered “dead—up the road near the King’s Picture ‘ouse… Wound in the neck an’ a blood-stained knife on the floor beside ‘im.” Mrs. Jarvis/Mrs. White takes an intense momentary interest before remembering her own troubles. The scene, which is part of one long act that plays out in real time, takes place in the parlor of the family’s general shop.

A second scene runs into this one when Alice finally shows up.

[Mrs. Jarvis stares at her. Her relief has been intense, and for a moment she has been prepared to welcome her daughter with all the love that lies in her. But her words and intentions freeze into nonexistence as she appreciates Alice’s appearance. A germ of suspicion is immediately bred, rapidly grows and as rapidly finds confirmation. She is at once convinced that ‘the worst’ has happened and her voice and demeanor reveal the fact. She speaks slowly.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Oh! So you’ve come home, have you? Well — Where have you been?

[Alice is looking at her mother. She is obviously at the end of her tether. Her movements are quick and nervous. And there is a haunted look in her eyes. She looks at her father and then at her brother. Finding no sympathy in either of them, her eyes come back to the questioner. She speaks quietly.]

Alice: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: Walking?

Alice: Just — walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: And last night?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: Walking.

Mrs. Jarvis: What? [Alice can’t bear it any longer and lowers her eyes. Mrs. Jarvis stares at her for a moment — then follows up her attack.] What do you mean — walking?

Alice [suddenly — desperately]: Leave me alone. Let me be. I’m not going to say anything.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Obviously, there is nothing at all like this in Hitchcock’s adaptation. However, it seems reasonable to suspect—as Charles Barr also noted in his essay, “Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn”—that this scene suggested Alice’s incredible post-murder journey through the city in Hitchcock’s film. The cinematic sequence is one of the film’s most memorable stretches and was purely Hitchcock’s creation, but it seems likely that Bennett’s play once again planted the seed for the idea in the director’s mind.

The play continues down this same path as Mrs. Jarvis and (to a lesser extent) the other members of Alice’s family try to force her to tell them where she has been. She continues to refuse until finally snapping at them: “You all seem pretty sure of what really happened last night. All right, then — you can think what you like — but I’ll tell you one thing, though. Whatever did happen is a thousand times worse than anything you can imagine — any of you!” Obviously, this only exacerbates her situation.

As this article has already mentioned, Alice’s absence goes unnoticed by her family in the Hitchcock films. This allows for the brilliant scene with the gossiping customer—the infamous “knife” sequence. It’s quite a scene and may actually do an even better job at getting Alice’s anxiety across to the viewer. It somehow makes it worse that her family doesn’t suspect anything as she is entirely alone in her suffering here.

In any case, this interrogation continues until the entrance of Harold/Frank.

[The shop door-bell rings and a man enters the shop. Mrs. Jarvis glances through the door.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Here’s Harold. [Alice starts.] Yes—and you’d better think what you’re going to say to him. You won’t get any help from us.

Alice [nervously]: I can’t see him.

Mrs. Jarvis: We’ll see about that — Ah! [Harold Webber has entered the room. For a moment during the preceding dialogue he has lingered in the shop waiting for an invitation to come in — but suddenly seeing Alice, he dispenses with ceremony… He stands just inside the room — his eyes on Alice. Mrs. Jarvis addresses him at once.] Yes — you may well come here, Harold. There she is—home after sixteen hours. Maybe she’ll tell you more than she told us. Ask her where she was last night.

Harold [looking fixedly at Alice and speaking quietly.]: Yes — I want to ask her that. [Alice lowers her eyes. Harold pauses a moment, then turns to Mrs. Jarvis.] But I’d like to ask you alone — if you don’t mind.

Mrs. Jarvis [disappointed]: But I don’t see —

Harold [looking at Alice again]: If you don’t mind, Mrs. Jarvis.

Mrs. Jarvis [annoyed]: Oh — very well, then. — We’ll go to the kitchen.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

This particular portion of the play does bring to mind a moment in the film when Alice asks Mr. and Mrs. White to leave their parlor/kitchen in the film, but this doesn’t happen until after Tracy arrives as a threat to the couple. The Hitchcock version of Harold/Frank’s interrogation of Alice occurs much more simply and with very little dialogue in a phone booth located in the public area of the store. What’s more, the audience knows from one of the film’s earlier scenes that Frank has discovered Alice’s glove and is fully aware that he suspects that Alice is guilty of the artist’s murder. In the play, this actually comes as a surprise after an interrogation of Alice that lasts over nine pages in length. After asking where she has been, he tells her that he is currently investigating a man’s murder and reads her an excerpt from the newspaper that informs her and the audience that the police are currently working on a clue. He then asks her who she left the dance with the previous night, and it becomes clear that he saw her leave with the murdered man.

Harold: …Was it the fellow you were dancing with?

Alice [after a silent pause]: No.

Harold: It wasn’t?

Alice [turning away to avoid his eyes]: No.

Harold [doubtfully]: Um! Did he tell you his name?

Alice [evasively]: I can’t remember.

Harold [curiously]: Can’t you? I wonder if you’d remember if you heard it again. —

Alice [facing him—frightened]: Why? — Do you know it?

Harold [nodding]: I know it all right. Shall I tell you?

Alice [quickly]: No.

Harold: Why not?

Alice [turning away again]: I’m — I’m not interested.

Harold: No — ? [Alice looks into the fire and doesn’t reply. Harold changes his tone once more.] By the way, Alice — you lost your gloves last night. Did you know?

Alice: No

Harold: I found them. [He takes a pair of long, light, kid gloves from his pocket.] These are yours, aren’t they? [Alice takes the gloves from him and stares at them—but doesn’t reply.] Aren’t those the ones I gave you at Christmas?

Alice: I — I don’t know. Where did you find them?

Harold: Are they yours?

Alice [after a momentary pause]: No.

Harold: They’re not.

Alice: No

Harold [doubtfully]: Sure? — Where are yours then — ?

Alice [quickly]: Oh—somewhere—in my pocket, I expect.

Harold: Um! [He thinks it over a moment.] Oh, all right, give me those back — I’ll need them.

Alice: Why?

Harold [as casually as possible]: Well — as a matter of fact they’re a clue.

Alice [startled]: A clue?

Harold: Yes. I ought to have handed them over to my chief when I found them. I took a pretty big risk when I put them in my pocket instead.

Alice [staring at him]: Harold —

Harold [looking straight into her eyes]: To tell you the truth I found them in the room where Peter Hewitt died — [Slowly] Peter Hewitt — the artist you were dancing with at the town hall last night.

Alice: But — [She stops.]

Harold: What?

Alice [quickly]: I—I don’t know what you’re getting at.

Harold: I think you do.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The play continues down this path with Alice refusing to admit her guilt and Harold becoming more forceful in his approach. It is only when she comes to understand that Harold has no intention of handing her over to the police that she breaks down and admits her guilt. Harold then promises her that he will stick by her and no one will ever know. In contrast, Hitchcock sets up the uniqueness of Alice’s gloves in the restaurant scene very early in his adaptation as we learn “there’s a hole in two fingers.” This allows him to show the audience the discovery of the glove and then allow the couple to interact with very little dialogue and very little exposition. The result is as follows:

Frank: What happened last night?

[Alice looks away from him not wanting to answer.]

Why won’t you tell me?

[After a beat, he realizes that she isn’t going to tell him and takes the glove from his pocket.]

Look. You know where I found that?

[Surprise and fear registers on Alice’s face as she nods that she does.]

It’s the only piece of evidence that you were there.

[She reaches for it, but he puts it back into his pocket.]

I’m keeping it back at present.

[She looks at him, at a loss for words.]

For God’s sake, say something!

[There is a knock at the phone booth’s door. It is Tracy. He has been watching them throughout the scene. He opens the door.]

Tracy: If you’re not using the phone, uh, may I? I — I want to get on to Scotland Yard.”

Interestingly, Tracy also interrupts the couple in Bennett’s play. After Harold/Frank promises that they are “the only two in the world who will ever know” that she killed the artist, they hear someone entering the store. We soon learn that their customer is Tracy, and he asks for Alice. Before she can refuse him, the man enters the parlor without asking and then proceeds to blackmail the couple for five pages. It isn’t unlike what happens in the film, but he milks money from them on the spot and even pressures Alice to take money from the store’s till to buy his silence. The biggest change here is that this shake down is allowed to play out, and the blackmailer leaves the premises after promising to be back regularly. In the film, the tables are turned on Tracy when Frank receives a phone call from Scotland Yard.

This never happens in Bennett’s play. Instead, Alice’s parents return to the parlor shortly after Tracy leaves their company. Mrs. Jarvis expects to learn from Harold what her daughter has been up to the previous night, but he refuses to tell her as she has told him in confidence. As a result, Mrs. Jarvis turns against him and suspects that “it’s a put-up job between them,” and accuses her of being with him the previous night. This continues until they again hear someone enter the shop. Albert has returned with more gossip about the murder.

[He is obviously very excited. Mrs. Jarvis transfers her attention to him at once.]

Mrs. Jarvis: Well?

Albert [at random]: Well — They’ve fahned out ‘oo did it!

Mrs. Jarvis: What?

Albert: Why, the murder, o’ course.

Mrs. Jarvis [exasperated]: What murder?

Albert [surprised at her ignorance]: O’ the young artist bloke up the road. ‘Is landlady — a Mrs. Cook, ‘as come forward an’ given the chap away.”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Of course, the chap in question is Tracy. Alice feels bad that the wrong man has been accused, but Harold believes that he deserves whatever he gets and calls it a “heaven-sent chance.” This is obviously what suggested the phone call from Scotland Yard that turned the tables on the blackmailer in Hitchcock’s film. The film version simply opts for economy.

The published version of the play’s third act has no counterpart in Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation as it finds an anxiety ridden Alice wide awake in the middle of the night as she tries to phone Harold/Frank. She is caught by Albert (who never even appears in the film version), and he makes it clear that he suspects that she is somehow mixed up with the Peter Hewitt murder. When Alice finally admits that she is the one who killed him, Albert leaves to discuss the matter with Harold. Meanwhile, Alice calls Harold to tell him that her brother is on his way to see him and admits that she is worrying about the welfare of Tracy. After this brief phone conversation, she hears someone at the shop door. This, of course, turns out to be an extremely exhausted Tracy. We learn that he has been chased by the police for hours and has come to seek shelter as it is storming. He tries to convince Alice to turn herself in to the police as they discuss their current situation. Alice assures Tracy that she has no intention of letting him take the fall for her, but she prefers to find another way around it so as not to get Harold into any trouble.

Soon, they see a policeman with a light peering in the store windows and hide. It seems that he is merely checking the premises as part of his nightly duty and hasn’t seen them. After more discussion, Harold arrives to talk to Alice. He tells her that Tracy was spotted entering the store and that other policemen are on their way to arrest him. There is an argument between the couple—with interjections, insults, and threats made by Tracy—about what she should do when the police arrive. She tells him that it would be wrong to let someone be punished for her crime and asks him to call the station to turn her in so that suspicion will be taken off of him. When he refuses, things become heated between Harold and Tracy. After absorbing a number of Tracy’s insults, Harold ends up pulling a gun on the man.

Harold:[He is staring at Tracy. There is a queer note in his voice.] Still — there’s another way, you know.

Tracy: What?

[Harold pauses a moment before answering. His hand is in his right pocket — his voice is steady.]

Harold: Besides us — Alice and me — you are the only person in the world who knows how Peter Hewitt died. I’m a policeman and there’s a warrant out for your arrest. If you tried to escape it’s my job to take you — and if you put up a fight — they’re not going to hang me for going a bit further.

Tracy: What do you mean?

Harold [suddenly whipping a light revolver from his pocket and covering Tracy]: THIS — !

Alice [terrified]: Harold — !

Harold [an insane glint in his eyes]: Look at that! Look at it, you swine. Murder to cover murder. It’s been done before, you know.

Tracy [cowering back]: You’re mad.

Harold: Perhaps

Alice [desperately]: Harold!!

Harold [throwing her back with his left arm.]: Keep out o’ this — [He lifts the revolver to shoot—but Alice has darted behind him and has seized his hand. He struggles with her.] Let go. — Let go. —

Alice: You can’t —

Harold [wildly]: Can’t I — ?

[He throws her off momentarily — AND SHOOTS! But Alice has knocked up the muzzle of the revolver and the bullet hits a picture, high above Tracy’s head. Alice seizes Harold by the wrist — desperate appeal in her voice.]

Alice: Harold!!

[Harold is staring at her — his eyes wild. Suddenly there is a loud knock at the shop door. Harold looks up and the revolver slips from his fingers and falls to the floor. Alice dives for it — then runs towards the left hand door evidently afraid that Harold might try to get it again. But Harold is standing as if in a dream — his muscles relaxed — his face expressionless. He speaks quietly.]

Harold: The police — !”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

It is, in fact, the Sargent of police. He has arrived to arrest Tracy. Alice makes an effort of confession but is hushed by Harold. She tries again but is interrupted by Albert. He has returned from the police station, and he demands that Harold call the station before anything else happens. After a brief exchange of confusion and argument, he does as Albert asks and phones the station. It seems by Harold’s reaction that he is receiving surprising news. Once this conversation is finished and the call is ended, we learn what he has heard on the other end of the line.

[Harold looks at them — one after another. His eyes finally rest on Alice. At last he speaks — slowly — as if in a dream.]

Harold: Peter Hewitt! His doctor went to Scotland Yard tonight. He told them a thing or two and it made them think — [To Tracy] And then — because they were after you, a police surgeon was sent down to the mortuary at once. He found out who did it — He found out —

Alice [staring]: Harold —

Harold [almost laughing—on the verge of a breakdown.]: Did you think he was murdered? My God! What a lot of fools we’ve been. Why, the wound wasn’t deep enough to have killed. The jugular vein wasn’t touched. [His lips move convulsively for a moment — then.] He died — of HEART FAILURE!

Tracy [gasping]: What?

Harold [going on quickly as Alice starts violently.]: Heart failure — brought on by over excitement. His heart’s been weak for months so the doctor says and they worked it out — Oh, Lord — they’re so clever — [He sways a moment and steadies himself against a chair before going on.] He — He was about to have supper when something — something happened to upset him. He had a seizure — the bread knife was in his hand — he fell — ON THE KNIFE! He managed to crawl to the bed where he died a few minutes later of — of — heart failure — Heart —

[He staggers and nearly falls—his hand to his eyes. The Sergeant darts forward and catches him by the arm.]

Sergeant: Steady!—What’s up?

Harold [sinking into a chair]: Nothing. Dizzy. — It’s been a long day—[His eyes come to Tracy. He speaks thickly.] There’ll be no charge against him. Take him along. They’ll let him go again when he gets there.

Sergeant [looking at Tracy regretfully]: Um! Are you ready, sir? [Tracy doesn’t reply. He too seems knocked out by the sudden turn of events. He looks at Harold then at Alice—then slowly turns and goes up into the shop. The Constable follows him. The Sergeant turns up too — speaking to Harold as he goes.] You’ll follow us — ?

Harold [without looking at him.]: At once.

Sergeant [to Alice]: Goodnight, Miss.

[Alice doesn’t reply. She is gazing fixedly at Harold. The Sergeant smiles to himself — turns — and goes into the shop, closing the glass door after him. Albert goes with him. A moment later the outer door slams — signifying that they have gone. Harold is sitting very still — staring straight in front of him — at nothing. Suddenly the pendulum clock gives a whirring noise and strikes ONE. Alice starts and speaks—fear in her voice.]

Alice: Oh. — Twenty-four hours since — since — [Her voice trails off.]

Harold [looking at her at last—speaking steadily]: Peter Hewitt died of heart failure.

[Alice looks at him—her eyes light up—she comes toward him.]

Alice: Harold — Was that true?

Harold [rising to meet her — nodding his head.]: True. —

Alice [relief too intense for words]: Oh. —

[Harold takes her in his arms — affectionately–protectively. She nestles up to him—looking up into his eyes. He speaks very quietly.]

Harold: You poor kid.

THE CURTAIN FALLS”

–Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

The carryover from this portion of the original play was the idea for the chase sequence in the original film version. Tracy elaborates on his experiences after seeking shelter with Alice, and it seems likely that this planted the seed for Hitchcock’s third act (even if the action in the film adaptation is completely different than what was described by Tracy in Bennett’s play.

An unpublished version of the play entitled “24 Hours” actually had another ending. This early draft seems to have taken a much different path to its eventual happy ending. Apparently, Alice eventually admits to the crime so as to let Tracy off the hook in this version.

“A sensational trial, occurring during the curtained interval between the second and third acts, acquits Alice of murder because she acted in self-defense. Returning home from jail, she is introduced by her mother, Mrs. Jarvis, to Miss Potter, a nasty Victorian spinster. Miss Potter has been tasked to force the terrified girl into a workhouse, where, locked away, she will atone her family’s disgrace by ironing.” –John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

It is doubtful that Hitchcock ever saw this early draft of the play, but it might be worth including here as a comparison to the version that was published:

Miss Potter: You must remember that this is going to take a lot of living down. Your parents have their livelihood to consider. If you were here… Well… It isn’t a very pleasant reflection, is it? I mean… The disgrace.

Alice: But I don’t see. What disgrace? I’ve been acquitted.

Miss Potter: Acquittal isn’t everything.

Alice [losing control of herself]: But they said… Oh… you ought to have been there to hear them. It was proved I wasn’t to blame.

Miss Potter [soothing her … irritatingly]: Now try to keep calm. It’s alright. It won’t be for long. You can come back here in a year or so’s time.

Alice: A year or so! And where do you expect me to go in the meanwhile?

Miss Potter: That has been arranged. You will live for the next few months at the Southwark branch of the Fallen Women’s Aid Society… [Alice gives a gasp but Miss Potter continues] You will find your surroundings friendly and congenial and you will have time to reflect and to think about making a new start in life. You will…

Alice [suddenly … unable to bear it any longer]: Be quiet! You … dreadful … woman!

Miss Potter [staggered … and shocked to the depths of her soul]: What … !!

Alice [tensely]: So you want to put me in prison after all. Yes … that’s what it means … Aid Society! Why … [desperately] I’d rather go on the streets!

Mrs. Jarvis: Alice!

Alice [to her mother]: You. Do you consent to this?

Mrs. Jarvis: It’s best, Alice.

Alice: Best! [She turns away on the verge of hysterical laughter—but faces them again.] And this is my home. You don’t want me here. I killed a man to save myself from … from … [Her voice breaks but she carries on.] And yet you’d send me to a home, among women of that sort … as if … as if … [She is crying again.]

–Charles Bennett (24 Hours, as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense,” 2014)

Of course, Alice refuses to go to the workhouse and ends up selling her story to the press for a large sum of money before announcing that she will marry the detective. Even if this ending had been presented to the director, it seems highly unlikely that he would have used it in his film.

This is a photograph of Alfred Hitchcock that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

THE ADAPTATION

If Blackmail can be viewed as the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s association with Charles Bennett, it should also be seen as the end of the director’s collaboration with Eliot Stannard. Stannard had collaborated in some capacity on the scripts for each of his silent films, but Blackmail was the dawn of a new era. On November 07, 1928, The Times reported that Garnet Weston was working on the scenario, but in the end Weston only contributed a rather generalized treatment for the film—a treatment that didn’t include the film’s third act chase through the British Museum.

Of course, Alma Reville was always a primary collaborator (especially during this phase in the director’s career), but the duo usually wanted a third voice.

“…Hitchcock didn’t have to look far. With his instinct for discovering young talent, he remembered Michael Powell… Hitchcock liked him, and so did Mrs. Hitchcock…

…During the filming of The Manxman Hitchcock had handed Powell a copy of the Charles Bennett play, telling him that Blackmail was well-crafted until the weak third act. Hitchcock liked fireworks for his third acts, the dramatic set pieces he called ‘crescendos,’ which topped everything that went before.

‘See what you think of the play,’ Hitchcock told Powell, ‘and let me know how you think it might be improved for a film.’ It was the kind of remark Hitchcock often meant as a little test, but Powell passed swimmingly. He returned to tell Hitchcock he agreed with him—Blackmail would make a ‘swell movie.’ When Hitchcock then asked about the rotten’ third act, Powell said, ‘To hell with the third act. We’ll make it a chase.’” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Of course, many people in the director’s orbit at the time have laid claim to coming up with the initial idea for Blackmail’s chase sequence (including John Maxwell), but it seems fairly safe to assume that the idea was born out of script sessions with Hitchcock, Reville, and Powell. It would probably be very difficult for even these three participants to actually nail down who came up with an idea that was born out of group conversation, but Powell would have certainly participated in the idea. In any case, his account of the script meetings that produced the chase is worth noting:

“At one script session, according to Powell, the director ‘broached an idea that I had been nurturing for a while.’ Blackmail ought to conclude, Powell suggested, with an elaborate chase that takes place in ‘some bizarre location that is entertaining in itself.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Hitchcock, raising his eyebrows. ‘What do you think Michael means, Alma?’ Right on cue, Mrs. Hitchcock gave Powell an encouraging nod. Powell had been pondering his boyhood visits to the British Museum Reading Room; that hallowed edifice with its glass dome. ‘Let’s have him [the blackmailer, pursued by police] slip into the British Museum at night,’ Powell offered, ‘and get chased through rooms full of Egyptian mummies and Elgin Marbles, and climb higher to escape, and be cornered and then fall through the glass dome of the Reading Room and break his neck.’ The Hitchcocks beamed.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

With the film’s third act in place, the director could begin planning for the film’s unusual production.

Sound Proofing 2

PRODUCTION: SILENT AND SOUND VERSIONS

We know that the production began as a silent film, but the production history of Blackmail is somewhat convoluted. In some ways, Hitchcock’s own recollections seem to raise nearly as many questions as they answer.

“I was bitterly disappointed when I was told that it was to be a silent picture. I was convinced that talkies were no mere flash in the pan and that the day of silent films had passed. I felt certain in my own mind that, when the picture was finished, I should be asked to add dialogue to it, or to remake it entirely as a full-length talkie. Therefore, when producing the film in silent form, I was imagining all the time that it was a talkie. I was using talkie technique, but without sound.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

As luck (or fate) would have it, the director was proven correct.

“…They told me that the last reel was going to be done in sound. I didn’t let them know up front, but I knew there was so much of the visual in it that here and there I could go back and drop certain sounds into scenes that were completed. Having seen it once since then, I think it shows a little bit that there’s no flow of dialogue where it should flow. The dialogue almost comes in like titles in the early part of the picture.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This, of course, implies that Hitchcock was able to lay in sound over most of the scenes that had already been shot for the silent version. However, Hitchcock told François Truffaut that the producers gave him “carte blanche to shoot some scenes over.” What’s more, an article written by Hitchcock in 1936 suggests that quite a few scenes were completely reshot (and a comparison of the two films confirms this).

“I was allowed to remake practically the whole of the picture in talkie form. There were certain difficulties. I had the same cast, except for Phyllis Konstam, who had gone off to fulfill a stage engagement. Phyllis Monkman replaced her.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

The replacement of Phyllis Konstam was a relatively inconsequential change in casting as she was only in a few scenes. However, it would have been impractical to recast the film’s protagonist, and this impracticality created quite a bit of chaos when it came time to reshoot scenes for the sound version.

“The star was Anny Ondra, the [Czech] actress, who, naturally, hardly spoke any English. We couldn’t dub in the voices then as we do today. So, I got around the difficulty by calling on an English actress, Joan Barry, who did the dialogue standing outside the frame, with her own microphone, while Miss Ondra pantomimed the words.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

It is this particular production problem that bothers many scholars. It’s impossible to fathom that the film would have been as groundbreaking sound-wise without quite a bit of serious consideration and planning. However, it seems strange that Hitchcock would have cast Anny Ondra as Alice White if he truly anticipated from the outset that he would be shooting sound. This seems somewhat paradoxical! On one hand, his sound experiments couldn’t have been achieved seamlessly without serious preplanning. On the other hand, if he was planning for a possible sound production, why was Ondra cast in the first place?

It seems reasonable to assume (and there is evidence to support the theory) that a sound production was initially nixed by the studio after the director’s contingent planning for both possibilities but before casting the film. It is known that John Maxwell (the film’s producer) changed his mind and agreed to add a final sound scene after production was well under way, and that he signed off on a few more sound additions at the behest of Hitchcock at an even later date. Hitchcock and Ondra were good friends. He wasn’t about to dismiss her in the middle of a production.

Anny Ondra

Anny Ondra

Even actors with strong voices and appropriate accents had a rough go of it. The coming of sound made it necessary for actors to relearn their craft. Silent actors had to adapt their technique so as to give more understated performances. Studios also began hiring stage actors, but acting for the screen required a different technique than what was required for the stage. Alfred Hitchcock remembered how veteran stage actress, Sara Allgood, had trouble adjusting her technique during the production of Blackmail:

“I remember a terrible moment in connection with her. As it was her first film we got to discussing [sic] the technique of the screen, and I was pointing out how stage actors rarely used their expressions and only their voices—they never had to project their expressions. Filmmaking was exactly the opposite; everything depended on pantomime.

‘How does one acquire the technique of pantomime?’ Sara asked me. I told her that it was mainly instinct, though there were artificial ways of teaching it. In the early days of films they would make a star look agonized by telling her bad news or releasing some rats at her feet.

‘How would you look,’ for example, ‘if I suddenly told you your mother was dead?’ To my surprise, Sara’s face suddenly went into tragic contortions, and she turned her head away. Then she explained. I had hit upon an unhappiest example I could possibly have chosen. Her mother had only just died.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Any issues regarding the film’s actors were somewhat easy to overcome in comparison to the technical challenges created by the addition of sound production. Patrick McGilligan paints a particularly grim picture of his circumstances during the shooting of Blackmail’s sound sequences in Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light:

Blackmail moved into B.I.P.’s new temporary soundstage: a padded house on the Elstree grounds. The walls were cushioned with blankets. Draped felt was sandwiched under the corrugated iron roof. The sound cameras had to be encased in telephone-booth-like kiosks on wheels. The cameras couldn’t track or dolly without wheeling the entire booth around the room. Camera movement—already a Hitchcock trademark—basically ground to a halt.

The standard carbon arc lamps produced an incessant hum and sputter, so the cameramen began experimenting with five and ten-kilowatt incandescents [sic]. This worked out well for illumination purposes, but created a near-suffocating heat inside the stage area—‘like being in a bake house,’ as Freddie Young recalled. ‘In between calls, the actors lay down on the floor and napped as best they could in the sweltering heat.’

The camera booth, a smaller confined space, was hellish—an even more punishing sweatbox. It was covered in front by a thick glass panel that had to be wiped clean constantly with alcohol. The crew even grabbed their tea breaks inside. ‘The operator was locked inside,’ recalled Young, who was assistant cameraman on another B.I.P. talkie… ‘And there he’d stay until the end of the take, when he’d stagger out sweating and gasping for air.’

…Hitchcock, most of the time, was stationed in a separate recording booth that was every bit as hot and suffocating, wearing outsized earphones to monitor the audio quality.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

A comparison of the “murder sequence” as seen in both the silent and talkie versions of Blackmail speaks volumes. Consider an incredibly effective moment in the silent version where the camera moves with the artist as he makes his way closer and closer to Alice before he attacks her. There is no such moment in the “talkie” version, because moving the camera in this manner would have been impossible.

Blackmail - Silent Approach

This threatening moment from the silent version of Blackmail isn’t replicated in the sound version of the film.

Blackmail - Murder Mustache

The mustache shadow seen in this image was Hitchcock’s farewell to silent cinema.

One touch that did manage to make both versions of the film was often mentioned by the director in interviews:

“I did a funny thing in that scene, a sort of farewell to silent pictures. On the silent screen the villain was generally a man with a mustache. Well, my villain was clean-shaven, but an ironwork chandelier in his studio cast a shadow on his upper lip that suggested an absolutely fierce-looking mustache!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

While one feels that this sequence was better served in the silent version, the celebrated “knife” scene is an incredible scene that uses sound as dramatically (and as subjectively) as Hitchcock uses the camera:

“After the girl has killed the painter, there is a scene showing a breakfast, with her family seated around the table. One of the neighbors is discussing the murder. She says, ‘What a terrible way to kill a man, with a knife in the back. If I had killed him, I might have struck him over the head with a brick, but I wouldn’t use a knife.’ And the talk goes on and on, becoming a confusion of vague noises to which the girl no longer listens—except for the one word, ‘knife, knife,’ which is said over and over again and becomes fainter and fainter. Then suddenly she hears her father’s normal, loud voice: ‘Alice, please pass me the bread knife.’ And Alice has to pick up a knife similar to the one she’s used for the killing, while the others go on chattering about the crime.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

As Hitchcock would later write in an article about screen direction, the sequence is a clear example of “how careful use of sound can help strengthen the intensity of a situation.” The remarkable thing about this particular scene is that it was made during a time when few were making any effort to use sound dramatically. For most filmmakers, sound was merely a functional gimmick that often got in the way of their visuals. Hitchcock understood that it could be used to enhance the drama.

Scholars have also given the film’s climactic chase sequence plenty of attention throughout the years, but this may be because there is so much documented information available about the shooting of this sequence. One of the earliest of these articles was published while Blackmail was still in production:

“The British Museum… is to play quite a big part in the first British ‘talkie,’ Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. Mr. Hitchcock has permission to film as much of the exterior and photograph as much of the interior as he wants, and his minions were at work a few days ago, in a ‘Flying Squad’ van, filming a ‘wanted’ man (Mr. Donald Calthrop), who scudded along Great Russell street, and dashed to cover up the steps of the Museum. Mr. Hitchcock, who seems to be turning rather to the Russian theory of casting types rather than professional actors, made his cameraman film the ordinary passers-by against whom Mr. Calthrop brushed. Though a few became ‘camera conscious,’ the effect was realistic. For the interior scenes, which include a chase along the galleries and a crash through the dome of the reading room, the Museum authorities have naturally not allowed facilities on the spot.” –The Adelaide Chronicle (Filming the British Museum, July 11, 1929)

Hitchcock was able to realize the interiors shots that made up the greater part of the film’s museum chase by utilizing a technique that he had learned during his stay in Germany:

“It was all process. You see, there was never enough light in the British Museum, so we used what is known as the Schufftan process. You have a mirror at an angle of 45 degrees and in it you reflect a full picture of the British Museum. I had some pictures taken with half-hour exposures. I had nine photographs taken in various rooms in the museum and we made then into transparencies so that we could back-light them. That is more luminous than a flat photograph. It was like a big lantern slide, about 12 by 14. And then I scraped the silvering away in the mirror only in the portions where I wanted the man to be seen running, and those portions we built on the stage. For example, one room was the Egyptian room, there were glass cases in there. All we built were the door frames from one room to another. We even had a man looking into a case, and he wasn’t looking into anything on the stage. I did nine shots like this, but there was barely any set that could be seen on the stage.

The front office was worrying about when the picture was going to be finished. So I did it all secretly because the studio heads knew nothing about the Schufftan process. I had another camera set up on the side photographing an insert of a letter, and a look-out stationed at the door. When the big-shot from the front office would walk through, we would just be shooting the insert of the letter. They’d go on through and I’d say, ‘All right, bring back the Schufftan.’ I did the whole nine shots that way. The chase on the roof was a miniature. We just built a skeleton ramp for him to run on.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Of course, Hitchcock often insisted that this ending was a compromise.

“I never did it the way I really wanted to… In the first reel, I show the process of an arrest: the detectives go out in the morning; they pick up the man; he has a gun; they take it away and put the handcuffs on. He’s taken to the police station, booked, fingerprinted, and questioned. They take a mug shot and lock him up in a cell. And then we come back to the two detectives going to the men’s room and washing their hands, just as though they were two office workers. To them, it was just the end of a day’s work. The younger detective’s girl is waiting for him; they go to a restaurant, have a row and go their separate ways…

…The ending I originally wanted was different [than the ending used in the film]. After the chase and the death of the blackmailer, the girl would have been arrested and the young man would have had to do the same things to her that we saw at the beginning: handcuffs, booking at the police station, and so on. Then he would meet his older partner in the men’s room, and the other man, unaware of what had taken place, would say, ‘Are you going out with your girl tonight?’ And he would have answered, ‘No, I’m going straight home.’ And the picture would have ended in that way. But the producers claimed it was too depressing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

Of course, the so-called “happily-ever-after” that the producers forced on Hitchcock was eventually subverted by the director into what is decidedly not a happy ending. The film’s ending has layers of foreboding as we understand that neither Alice nor Frank are free. They have merely locked themselves into another kind of prison—together, and in bondage. In other words:

“The producers unwittingly chose the more radical ending because it ‘looked’ more conventional, a romantic happy ending. The censors who gave Buñuel his marvelously subversive conclusion to Viridiana made the same happy error… In any case, the imposed ending stands as an integrated ironic whole.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

If there was any hope as to the couple’s potential for future happiness, Hitchcock brilliantly destroys it during these final moments by bringing back the film’s most frequent motif:

“The most protean symbol is Crewe’s painting of the clown… The clown image itself assumes various expressions. Upon Alice’s arrival in the studio, it promises gaiety. It leers at her when the atmosphere turns erotic. When the same face accuses her after she kills Crewe, she slashes at its harsh laughter. The clown later catches the furtive Frank’s concealment of the glove and taunts him. At the end the painting is carried past Frank and Alice into the heart of the Yard, where it will point its accusing finger at the duped police force…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

It isn’t mentioned, but the painting also seems to be accusing both Alice and Frank as it is carried past them. It knows that they can never be happy. It knows that their future is grim. It even admonishes the audience for our complicity in these crimes. Do we even deserve a happy ending?

This is a publicity photograph of Cyril Ritchard and Anny Ondra that was taken during the production of BLACKMAIL (1929).

RELEASE AND RECEPTION:

“The first showing in Berlin of the British International Pictures production, Blackmail, was used to test the feeling of the public here on the vocal film.

The whole work was passed twice across the screen, once with and once without the voices, and the audience, consisting mainly of people connected with the cinematograph industry who had come by invitation, was asked to state on voting cards which of the two versions was preferred. The result was 685 votes for the silent and 439 for the, vocal rendering.

This decision is the more important because the work on the whole was very well received. One of this evening’s papers, for instance, says: ‘It does not, like others, merely pretend to be a sound film, but actually is one.’

The same writer finds that certain scenes were very successful and clearly indicated the many and extraordinary possibilities of the sound film. He also speaks of the ‘wonderful atmospheric truth; and ‘The minute penetration in the observation and reproduction of detail shown by the very gifted young producer, Alfred Hitchcock.’” –Hull Daily Mail (Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

It is interesting to consider that the silent version was the preferred version of Blackmail during this preview screening, and the silent version was more widely distributed since there was a great number of theaters that were still not set up to exhibit “talkies.” However, most of the existing press from the era seems to largely ignore the silent Blackmail as British International Pictures understandably preferred to promote their first sound picture, and this more popular version of the film was (by most accounts) an overwhelming critical success. Most critics showered “Britain’s First All-Talking Picture” with hyperbolic praise. Of course, there were exceptions. For example, Hugh Castle wrote an incredibly condescending—if mostly positive—review for the film that oozes snobbish pretention:

“Alfred Hitchcock had finished the picture at the time the talkie wave broke. Frenzied conferences resulted in his re-shooting most of it and making it into a dialogue picture. It must be said at the outset that, considering that he was toying with a medium about which we knew nothing, considering he had a finished picture to doctor into a talkie, considering his star could not speak English and had to be ‘ghosted’ throughout, he has made a good job of it.

Blackmail is perhaps the most intelligent mixture of sound and silence we have yet seen. It is not a great picture, it is not a masterpiece, it not an artistic triumph, it is not a valuable addition to the gallery of the world’s great films, it is not even, I think, a great box-office picture. But it is a first effort of which the British industry has every reason to be proud. It is Hitchcock’s come-back. While seeing it you can hardly believe that it was made by the man who gave us Champagne or The Manxman. For perhaps the first time in the history of the commercial cinema we are faced with a good film based on a dreadful play. Usually, however low the stage, the screen can be depended upon to go one lower.

As is usual in the more serious Hitchcock pictures, all considerations are secondary to the Almighty German Technique. If you shoot up a stairway you must tilt your camera until the result looks like Gertrude Stein reduced to a cross-word puzzle. If you want to show a Flying Squad car in full blast you begin by showing a revolving wheel and draw away until you run parallel to the car. Very clever, of course. Yet Hitchcock has a way—at his best—of justifying his weaknesses.

The first reel is silent. The dialogue is in arithmetic progression with the speed of the picture. The story, which is too thin from the commercial angle, and too inane from the artistic, concerns a detective in the Flying Squad whose girl murders an artist who attempts to seduce her… An altogether inconsequential theme for a good picture. Yet. Hitchcock succeeds in wedding sound with silence.

He has one sequence which, despite the way it has been glorified in the English press, gives one a clear idea of the potentialities of the medium. The girl overhears a chatterbox discussing the murder, while the memory of the knife is still fresh in her penny-dreadful mind. The talk dies down and down until only the word ” ‘knife’ emerges, stabbing, hurting. Inasmuch as that particular sequence is about the only one we have on record in which sound has been definitely instrumental in the development of the drama, the picture is worthwhile…

… Within twenty-four hours of the show being over, the optimists were predicting an immediate revival in British production. Blackmail has put us on top of the world. Pudovkin is dead, Eisenstein has ceased to be. Even Carl Laemmle, a greater figure than either, is forgotten for the moment! We shall see.” –Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Of course, Ernest Betts, in a later article entitled, “All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing” was less courteous (but even more pompous) in his mention of the film. It should come as no surprise to note that it too was an article for Close Up:

“I suppose it would not be denied that one of the essential gifts of the daily paper film critic of popular standing is to be able to write voluminously about nothing. However asinine the subject-matter, there is always plenty to be said about it. And we know in any case that the best journalists are very often those who can give an air of importance to things which really do not matter at all…

Blackmail is a good story, but it tells us nothing, except that if pretty girls will get involved with artists in Chelsea they may get seduced. But this is exactly the type of film of which I complain. What was the great focal point of all the critics over this particular film? It was admiration and analysis of its technique. Good heavens, to think of the stuff I have written, or attempted to write, about Hitchcock’s technique! I look at the stuff and I say: ‘This is awful! What on earth are you talking about? Where did you get hold of it all?’ And at once I am reminded of the dreary university lectures I used to attend on the textual sublimities of Chaucer, the alliterative fancies of Piers Ploughman, and so on. But the vital spark of Chaucer and Langland I never got. And nobody reads either of them now except as an academic exercise. For the truth is, these studies were concerned with the makings of literature, not with the thing made, which you can hold up to the light and judge as a living texture. It is as if you bought a clock for the works instead of the time…” –Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Mr. Betts really shouldn’t have been allowed to write about film in the first place. Philistines shouldn’t masquerade as scholars, and those who can’t fully appreciate the cinema do not deserve it. In any case, this sort of attitude seems to have been the exception to the rule. The Times, for example, had nothing but praise for the film. What’s more, they were able to impart their praise without lacing it with condescension:

“More than the average significance attached to the showing of Blackmail, as it was the first full-length talking subject to be made in a British film studio. Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, the director, should be well pleased with his work, which easily surpasses its forerunners in the peculiar gifts which the sound film is acquiring for itself. From the first Mr. Hitchcock has held firmly to the principles of movement which underlie his craft. Blackmail is a true motion picture, and frees us from the idea that the camera must be transfixed and the pictorial flow of the film arrested merely for the pleasure of recording a variety of strange noises.

Based on the play by Mr. Charles Bennett, the story retells, even to the carving-knife, the Tosca-like theme of seduction which has served film and opera so faithfully. Mr. Hitchcock, sweeping aside American traditions of speed and glamour, has given us a piece of uncompromising ‘cinema’ whose lentisaimo drama unfolds without any attempt to lash itself into fury. Yet it is full of doom, and rolls on with fatal deliberation to its end. While the young Chelsea artist is entertaining the tobacconist’s daughter at his studio, the rhythm is so slow, the scene so artless, we never suspect the horror lying in wait behind the curtains. Thereafter the blackmail of the girl by the loafer in possession of her glove is conducted with the same mesmeric coolness, and we witness the scenes at Scotland Yard, the thrilling chase on to the roof of the British Museum, as if personal to these encounters. This would be satisfying enough as a silent film. It gains by the director’s use of sound, which calls for no display of thunder or circus swagger. During the first 10 minutes of the film not a character breaks into speech, for the story is quite able to express itself pantomimically [sic]. When at length the casual talk of detectives is introduced, the ear is not offended as by battery and assault. The words bring relief after, silence and the long, mounting suspense. Indeed, the dialogue throughout is admirably written and enters with a frank and pleasing cadence into its graphic background. Considerable use is made of voices ‘off the set,’ and the realistic note is heightened by this device, as when detectives are heard speaking in an adjacent room and we understand, though we do not hear, the words.

Aside from these technical considerations, the scene, story, and characterization have much to recommend them. They have the freshness of truth, showing us intelligible people on lawful and dastardly occasions in such settings as the London suburbs, Chelsea, Westminster, Bloomsbury, Piccadilly, and ‘the Yard.’ Mr. Hitchcock’s fondness for symbolism does not diminish and he loves the perspective of a good staircase ; but his camera has an original eye, always set at a vivid angle, and he can make time deepen and ache for its crisis in a way that has no parallel in skill since Warning Shadows.

Credit must be given to the cast, who speak and move with so sensitive a response to the story’s needs. Miss Anny Ondra, whom we saw not long ago in The Manxman, has infinitely improved her performance, as somebody has clearly improved, if not stolen, her voice. As the artist, Mr. Cyril Ritchard gives a study free of all ‘arty’ conventions, and produces a graceful villain in whom we can well believe. Miss Sarah Allgood, as a film mother, caught the outlines of that over-photographed character perfectly, and spared us the sentimental deluge. But perhaps the most brilliant performance was that of Mr. Donald Calthrop, whose blackmailer leaves us amazed that he is not oftener seen in British films. The Elstree studios can take pride in a production which should appreciably raise the stock of our fluctuating British industry, while it is but just to add that under Mr. Hitchcock’s guidance the talking film has taken a very definite step forward.” –The Times (June 24, 1929)

A review published in the Yorkshire Evening Post was no less flattering:

“The first really big audible film, Blackmail… touches the top note in talkie production, and is actually better than the best American speaking picture that has yet raised its voice in this country. The players speak quietly, naturally and distinctly, while even whispers are rendered effectively. There is no suggestion of a gramophone in the recording (R.C.A. Photophone sound on film) or in the reproduction.

In this screen version of Charles Bennett’s drama, Alfred Hitchcock has not been content to offer something in the nature of a photographed stage play with ‘canned’ dialogue, but has used the elastic medium of the cinema camera to form a large and impressive background to the story. It is a murder melodrama in which the action is confined entirely to London. Scenes in Scotland Yard, the Corner House and the British Museum have never been reproduced so faithfully in any film play. From the opening scene, the only silent portion of the picture in which detectives of the ‘flying squad’ arrest a ‘wanted’ man in the slums, the tension is never relaxed to the last ‘shot’ of all.

The theme may not be particularly novel, but it is treated in an unusual way. Also, the acting all round reaches a higher standard of excellence than in any talkie yet. It is stated that Anny Ondra, the Continental star, who plays the leading feminine role, employed a ‘double’ for her voice, but if so, synchronization is so nearly perfect that eye and ear are deceived… If British producers can keep up to the high level of Blackmail, there should be a bright future before the home talkie industry.” –L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Dundee Evening Telegraph went as far to imply that it was the Brit’s patriotic duty to see the film.

“There is really only one thing that is possible to say about Britain’s first all-talking picture, Blackmail, and that is—see it. Blackmail, made entirely at Elstree and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, has anything that America had done beaten to a frazzle. The single fact alone that we hear the Mother Tongue as it should be spoken is sufficient to recommend it to all patriotic Britons. But Blackmail has more than that. The story is strong and dramatic, the acting is blameless, and the glimpses one gets of the interior of Scotland Yard and many other well-known and familiar places, and of the methods of that thrilling organization, ‘The Flying Squad,’ are intensely fascinating and homely [sic]. It is strange how much better one likes to see places that one knows on the screen, than scenes one has never visited…

…We are indebted to the brilliant direction of Alfred Hitchcock. Many of his little details are touches of sheer genius, such as, for instance, the opening scenes of the film. Although Blackmail is a full-length ‘talkie,’ Hitchcock has given us the introduction to his film in a silence that is ten times more effective than any sound. He himself says there are moments in any film when silence speaks far more than words…

…Everything has been done to obtain realism, and the characters on the screen seem to be made of flesh and blood and not mere puppets, so deftly has the producer handled the material at his command.” –Dundee Evening Telegraph (First British Talkie a Triumphant Success, August 09, 1929)

It is clear that at least some of the critical enthusiasm for the film was born out of national pride and support for the British film industry (which was struggling to gain a foothold even within the confines of Britain). Blackmail seemed to offer hope that it could compete with American product, and this is why this review—and many of the others—make it a point to laud it favorably against American product.

It’s also interesting to note that many of these reviews make it a point to criticize Charles Bennett’s stage play even as it praises Hitchcock’s film. Both of these trends are on display in a review published by The Canberra Times:

Blackmail (says the London Daily Mail) is as far in advance of all other talking films which have hitherto been shown in London… It is—very nearly—a great film. The qualification is necessary, not in virtue of its merits in comparison with other talking films, but because of its own standards. In this film for the first time intelligent use is made of sound: the noise has not been thrown in as an overweight to the action. The director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, has been known always as a master of expressive technique. He has succeeded in translating into vocal terms the doctrines of expressionism which the great Germans like Pabst and Lubitsch have exploited in pictorial values. It is superb entertainment and it is the first credible picture of London and its characteristic life which has yet appeared on the screen. London is, indeed, its leading lady. The story is taken from the stage play of the same name (and in its taking contrary to established practice, Mr. Hitchcock has transmuted a play which was almost entirely tedious into an exciting entertainment)… Blackmail will come as a shock to the American film magnates, who cannot conceive goodness in a film not created after their own image.” –The Canberra Times (New English Talkie, October 11, 1929)

A review published in The Burnley Express is perhaps even more concerned with the British film industry than it is in the film:

“All who are interested in the welfare of the British film industry will be delighted with Blackmail… A good story has been most intelligently directed. A little is occasionally left to the imagination, and there are many subtle touches which we thought at one time could only be introduced by Continental directors… The acting throughout is of a standard seldom reached in ‘talkies.’ Anny Ondra, John Logden, and Donald Calthrop, who head the cast are all splendid. I hope the British films will continue to be successful enough to keep these fine players in their own country.” –Burnley Express (British Success at The Pentridge, January 08, 1930)

The same publication would publish another equally enthusiastic review only a few weeks later:

Blackmail… was practically the first British picture to challenge the supremacy of the American ‘talkies.’ Alfred Hitchcock, the director, proved himself a real master of his art by his masterly handling of this picture, which is sure to attract large audiences wherever it is shown… Although the director’ brilliant work would have of itself made the picture a success, the players have given him every possible assistance by gripping characterizations, and Blackmail will now remove any doubt anyone may have had regarding the future prospects of the British film industry.” –Burnley Express (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, January 24, 1930)

In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Patrick McGilligan suggests that the film was denied distribution in America despite rave reviews in the trades, but this seems to be untrue—or at least misleading—as there is much period evidence to suggest that it played to enthusiastic audiences after premiering at the Selwyn in New York on October 04, 1929. In fact, periodicals of the era even suggest that the film was “held over” and that Blackmail had “broken the house record” at the Davis theater in San Francisco.

There’s also a good number of American reviews for the film, and reading them makes it easier to understand why the British press made so many snide remarks about America’s film output. The American press was fairly dismissive of British pictures and treated them as if they were inferior and unimportant, so it should come as no real shock to learn that many of these American reviews weren’t nearly as positive as most of those that came out of the director’s home country.

Freddie Schader’s review for Motion Picture News is a case in point:

“This was heralded as the best British made talking film to date. If this is a sample of the best that the English can turn out, we have only to say that it is of the quality that in this country is usually booked into Class B and C houses and never gets into deluxe first runs. To bring this picture to Broadway and offer it at $2 top is going a little too far. It is a murder mystery tale with Scotland Yard as its background. The only one who really committed the crime goes scott-free. There’s no moral in that, is there?

But the picture has a moral. It is simply this: Never permit your love for cheese to persuade you to place a chunk of it at the head of your bed, and above all never leave a knife with it. For if this artist chap, who is the heavy, hadn’t left a piece of cheese and a knife with it on the table where it was possible to reach it from the bed he never would have been murdered…

…The chap who played the blackmailer must have been the architect of the British Museum judging from his familiarity with the various stairways, halls, and doors in the building during a chase which seemingly ran more than a reel. There is no one in the cast who matters to this market.” -Freddie Schader (Opinions on Pictures: Blackmail, Motion Picture News, October-December 1929)

Variety was just as dismissive:

Blackmail is most draggy. It has no speed or pace and very little suspense. Everything’s open-face. It’s a story [from the play by Charles Bennett] that has been told in different disguises—the story of a girl who kills a man trying to assault her…

…In performance the standout is Donald Calthrop as the rat crook. He looks it. Ondra is excellent as the girl. Dialogue is ordinary but sufficient. Camera work [was] rather well done, especially on the British Museum [in the chase finale] and the eating house scenes. A bit of comedy here and there, but not enough to be called relief.” -Variety (December 31, 1928)

This particular review actually makes one wonder if Variety was allergic to complete sentences, but Mordaunt Hall’s review on the New York Times is nearly as clunky and just as disparaging:

Blackmail, Britain’s first talking picture, which was wildly acclaimed by London critics, is… a murder story based on a play by Charles Bennett and in spite of its many artificial situations and convenient ideas it possesses a dramatic value that holds the attention. It has the advantage of authentic backgrounds, even to an episode for which the British Museum serves as a setting. Its vocal delivery is nicely modulated. The diction of the players is very English but none the less pleasing and suitable to the chronicle. Its continuity is smooth, the narrative being told without any extravagant flourishes, and the performances of the players reveal that two or three of them could do even better work.

The characters impress one as always being far too obedient to the director’s iron will. They do the wrong thing to set the story right. An artist who is murdered is more natural in life than any of the other persons. The photography is seldom up to American standards, for the director, Alfred Hitchcock, frequently fails to see that his scenes are adequately lighted and more often than not the images do not stand out as distinctly as they might if more attention had been paid to the shading of the interior walls…

…The dialogue in this film is frequently so staccato that it reminds one of the speech of Dickens’s Alfred Jingle. Three words are uttered and then follows a curious and artificial silence. Then there may be either four or five words with another hushed period. This talking matches the action of the players, for Mr. Hitchcock, to heighten the dramatic effect, often calls upon his actors to move with exasperating slowness. Anny Ondra, a Czechoslovakian actress who does not speak with any noticeable foreign accent, officiates as Miss White. She has a well-defined personality and does creditable work. The failing in her acting in some scenes is due to the direction…” –Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Apparently, Hall was unaware of the fact that Ondra’s voice was in actuality Joan Barry’s voice. What’s more, if there is any “failing in her acting,” this is likely do to the fact that she was merely mouthing words as Barry spoke her dialogue. His statement that the film was inadequately lit makes one wonder what he would think of the film noir genre with its use of shadow. In any case, it seems unlikely that the film was given a fair chance by American critics.

However, a review in Billboard did have a few kind words for the film despite criticism about “a slow beginning” and “inconsistent” direction.

“Lacking all the fancy photography and distracting features that visually accompany a foreign-made production, Blackmail proves to be one of the best pictures that has yet been imported to America. Except for a few minutes of a slow beginning the picture holds its audience with a dramatic intensity that few American productions during the current season have equaled…

…The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is inconsistent in parts, with a letter left to the artist which the police read several times without letting the audience know its contents, but, as a whole, the job is very well done. The recording throughout is excellent and American producers could learn a lesson from this production, which will prove a howling success in any theater in which it is played.” –J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Luckily, time has allowed for a more objective analysis of the film. It may not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best British thrillers, but it absolutely stands above a vast majority of the early sound pictures being made at that time.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the two discs in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from one of the lobby cards that was used to promote Blackmail during its original theatrical engagement:

Lobby Card

Of course, the image has been adjusted to include a stylized title that was taken from various vintage advertisements for the film.

Blackmail Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from the film’s score and is both attractive and easy to navigate.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

While the “talkie version” of Blackmail has seen several illegitimate “public domain” releases featuring terrible transfers that nearly rendered the film unwatchable, the “silent version” has never been given a home video release in North America. Those who have only seen one of these horrendous transfers of the “talkie version” will be surprised to discover that they haven’t actually seen the film at all. Meanwhile, the “silent” version will be completely new to an even greater number of people.

The talkie version is available in two distinct versions:

Disc One features the film in the typical 1.33:1 aspect ratio (along with the Silent Version), and Disc Two supposedly presents the film in the original theatrical ratio of 1.20:1. European films of this era were often shot in this ratio because the soundtrack utilized part of the frame. If this was the original 1.20:1 image, the horizontally stretched 1.33:1 version of the film would seem superfluous. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, the 1.20:1 version of the film seems vertically stretched so that it is actually a 1.12:1 image! This is a rather disappointing revelation. As for the 1.33:1 version, one assumes that it has been included here because some of the shots were originally captured silently in the Academy ratio, and this version will allow those shots to shine (even if they were not originally presented in this manner except in the “silent version”). However, this is simply conjecture.

Blackmail Transfer Comparison

The largest of these images is distortion free. The top side image is from the 1.33:1 transfer and is horizontally stretched. The bottom side image is of the 1.20:1 transfer and is vertically stretched.

To be clear, the 1.20:1 version is slightly less distorted than the 1.33:1 version. However, most of the aforementioned “public domain” discs presented a horizontally stretched transfer, and familiarity with this particular brand of distortion might make this the preferred transfer for some viewers. In any case, stretching is a curse that has followed this film for decades.

Both of these transfers display significantly more contrast than the “silent version” of the film, and there is some noticeable print damage on display. However, the damage isn’t at all distracting. In fact, this is the cleanest that the film has ever looked on home video. What’s more, it is much clearer than any of those dreadful “public domain” transfers. Seeing this new transfer will be a revelation! Detail is surprisingly evident throughout, although the “talky” transfer does suffer somewhat when compared to BFI’s Restoration transfer of the “silent” version of Blackmail. I’d say that a restoration of the sound version is also in order.

The silent version is a healthier looking transfer that exhibits stronger blacks and quite a bit more detail throughout the film. A comparison between these two versions is a fairly good demonstration as to why film restoration is so incredibly important. BFI did a terrific job here, and Kino Lorber’s transfer is an admirable reproduction of their good work. There have been criticisms about this transfer that suggest that the transfer could have benefited from a bit more contrast, but we wouldn’t want just anyone tinkering with the knobs.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The “talkie” version of Blackmail is given a 2.0 DTS-HD transfer of the film’s original mono soundtrack that faithfully reproduces the film’s original sound without embellishment. Obviously, the primitive production techniques that were used limit the range despite being a clean representation of the original elements. Hiss is never an issue here, but it can occasionally be heard if one is listening for it. It is a vast improvement over all of the previous unofficial “public domain” releases! The fact is that this is an incredibly clean track. When one considers the film’s production history, it might even be considered a minor miracle.

The silent version’s 2.0 DTS-HD mix of the score is also an incredibly healthy transfer. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra comes through cleanly and clearly.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

First of all, we are not counting the Silent Version of Blackmail as a supplemental feature here, because the film is equally as important to this release as its “Talkie” counterpart.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas offers valuable comparison between the silent and sound versions of the film, mention’s Michael Powell’s collaboration, and points out errors in the continuity. It’s a better-than-average commentary track that engages the listener.

Anny Ondra’s Screen/Sound Test – (00:59)

Sound Test

What a treasure! Any Blu-ray release of Blackmail without this screen test would be incomplete.

As is mentioned in the above essay about the film, Anny Ondra was a Czech film actress with a rather thick accent that was decidedly inappropriate for the very British protagonist. Most sources agree that this sound test was done as a demonstration to Anny Ondra, and Hitchcock does mention that she had asked to hear her voice on film within the actual test itself. However, other details surrounding the test are somewhat vague. We know that Jack Cox was the cameraman with Hitchcock very much in control. Apparently, the director had a habit of trying to make his actors—both male and female—laugh with his “bawdy humor.” His exchange with Anny Ondra fell in line with this habit:

Alfred Hitchcock: Now, uh, Miss Ondra. You asked me to let you hear your voice on the talking picture.

Anny Ondra: [Giggles] But, Hitch, you mustn’t do that.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why not?

Anny Ondra: Well, because… I can’t speak well.

Alfred Hitchcock: Do you realize the squad van will be here any moment?

Anny Ondra: No, really? Oh, my god. I’m terribly frightened.

Alfred Hitchcock: Why? Have you been a bad woman or something?

Anny Ondra: Well, not just bad, but… uh.

Alfred Hitchcock: But you’ve slept with men.

Anny Ondra: Oh, no! [She turns away as she laughs.]

Alfred Hitchcock: You have not? Come here. Stand in your place, otherwise
it will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier.

Anny Ondra laughs as she turns away from the camera.

Hitchcock: [turns to the camera] That’s enough.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon – (10:27)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Blackmail and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (06:28)

It would probably be better to label this as an “interview” rather than an introduction. There are way too many spoilers here, and it provides more information than the typical introduction. Some of Simsolo’s information is laced with questionable commentary, but this is a slightly better interview than the one that he provided for Murder!

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)

The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailers – (01:43)

Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailers – (02:04)

Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

The theatrical trailers are welcome and worth having on the disc, but the Blu-ray advertisements seem like superfluous additions. One wishes that the original trailers for Blackmail could have been found and included. This would have been a significant addition to the disc.

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS05

Final Words:

Kino Lorber has finally given Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound film (and his final silent film) a solid release on the Blu-ray format. Which version of Blackmail is superior? You can finally decide for yourself.

Review by: Devon Powell

BLACKMAIL (SILENT) SS06

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1928)

Staff Writer (The Film World, The Times, November 07, 1928)

Staff Writer (First English Talkers Start in Production, Amarillo Sunday News Globe, May 05, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, Nottingham Evening Post, May 23, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, The Times, June 24, 1929)

Staff Writer (The Talkie King Talks, Evening News, June 25, 1929)

L.M. (Blackmail: A British Talking Film Touches Top, Yorkshire Evening Post, July 10, 1929)

Staff Writer (Filming the British Museum, The Adelaide Chronicle, July 11, 1929)

Hugh Castle (Elstree’s First ‘Talkie, Close Up, August 1929)

Staff Writer (The First Two British All-Dialogue Pictures, Yorkshire Post, August 29, 1929)

Staff Writer (Hull Daily Mail, Sound v. Silent Film Vote, September 11, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ October 4, Billboard, October 05, 1929)

Mordaunt Hall (Britain’s First Talking Film, New York Times, October 07, 1929)

Staff Writer (New English Talkie, The Canberra Times, October 11, 1929)

J.F.L. (New Films Caught in New York: ‘Blackmail, Billboard, October 12, 1929)

Staff Writer (Pictures Presentations: ‘Blackmail’ Held Over, Billboard, October 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (Blackmail, Hull Daily Mail, November 19, 1929)

Staff Writer (British Success at The Pentridge, Burnley Express, January 08, 1930)

Staff Writer (Stageland, The World’s News, January 15, 1930)

Staff Writer (Coliseum’s Excellent Fare, Burnley Express, January 24, 1930)

Robert Herring (Twenty-Three Talkies, Close Up, February 1930)

Ernest Betts (All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Nothing, Close Up, June 1930)

Oswell Blakeston (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

Charles Bennett (Blackmail, 1934)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 1-5, 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Direction, Sight and Sound, Summer 1937)

Alfred Hitchcock (Some Aspects of Direction, National Board of Review, October 1938)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Tom Ryall (Blackmail: BFI Film Classics, December 27, 1993)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Barr (Blackmail: Charles Bennett and the Decisive Turn, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

John Charles Bennett (The Avenger, Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Blu-ray Review: The House of Hitchcock – Limited Edition Collection

HOHC - Blu-ray Set.jpg

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: October 01, 2019

Region: Region A

Notes: These films are also available individually with standard Blu-ray packaging, as part of The Masterpiece Collection, and as part of The Ultimate Collection.

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Universal owns the rights to more Alfred Hitchcock titles than any other studio, and they certainly milk these properties for every penny that they are able to squeeze out of his admirers. However, one really shouldn’t complain since this gives fans an opportunity to own these films with plenty of choice as to how these discs are packaged. Each of the films available in this collection have been available on Blu-ray for quite some time (as individually packaged titles, as a part of The Masterpiece Collection, and as part of The Ultimate Collection), and these image and sound transfers are the same ones utilized for those earlier releases. What’s more, these discs include the same supplemental material. Interested parties can read more detailed information about each of the discs included in this set by clicking on the links below:

Saboteur

Shadow of a Doubt

Rope

Rear Window

The Trouble with Harry

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Vertigo

North by Northwest

Psycho

The Birds

Marnie

Torn Curtain

Topaz

Frenzy

Family Plot

The House of Hitchcock also includes the two standard definition DVDs that focus on Hitchcock’s television work that originally appeared in The Ultimate Collection:

The Best of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents

This new disc showcases a single Alfred Hitchcock directed episode from all seven seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The following episodes are included:

Revenge (Season 1, Episode 1)

The series premiere of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is one of the show’s best episodes. It first aired on October 02, 1955 and starred Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker. Those who admire The Andy Griffith Show will also notice Frances Bavier in a supporting role. The story by Samuel Blas follows Carl and Elsa Spann, a newlywed couple just starting their life. Elsa has recently suffered a nervous breakdown but seems to be on her way to recovery. Unfortunately, Carl returns home from work one evening to find that his wife has been attacked. When the police prove to be unhelpful, Carl decides to get justice on his own.

Vera Miles gives a great performance here—a performance that looks forward to her portrayal of Rose Balestrero in Alfred Hitchcock’s under-appreciated docudrama, The Wrong Man.

Mr. Blanchard’s Secret (Season 2, Episode 13)

Mr. Blanchard’s Secret pales in comparison. The episode first aired on December 23, 1956 and starred Mary Scott, Robert Horton, Dayton Lummis, and Meg Mundy. The story by Emily Neff revisits some of the themes better explored in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Babs Fenton, a housewife with an overactive imagination who fancies herself a writer, believes that Mr. Blanchard has murdered his wife. However, her suspicions are called into serious question when Mrs. Blanchard shows up at their door looking to be very much alive. Babs alters her theory as to the reason behind Mr. Blanchard’s suspicious behavior only to be proven wrong once again.

Lamb to the Slaughter (Season 3, Episode 28)

Lamb to the Slaughter is rightly mentioned amongst the series best episodes. It aired on April 13, 1958 and stars Barbara Bel Geddes (who portrayed Midge in Vertigo that same year). The story by Roald Dahl follows a devoted housewife named Mary Maloney who decides to kill her cheating husband with a frozen leg of lamb rather than let him leave her. What follows is classic Hitchcock.

Poison (Season 4, Episode 1)

Poison—which was based upon another tale by Dahl—first aired on October 05, 1958 and stars Hitchcock alumnus Wendell Corey and James Donald. Harry Pope (Donald) wakes up with a poisonous snake in his bed. Worse, it finds a comfortable place to rest right on his chest. The entire episode is devoted to solving this tense predicament.

Arthur (Season 5, Episode 1)

Arthur first aired on September 27, 1959 and stars Laurence Harvey in the title role. Unusually for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, the story begins with Arthur standing amongst a large number of chickens as he addresses the audience directly. After this opening monologue, we flash back in time as he tells the viewer how he killed his gold-digging girlfriend and was able to get away with it. The story itself is rather amusing, but the framing device at the beginning and end doesn’t work very well (possibly because there is already an introduction and epilogue performed by Hitchcock).

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat (Season 6, Episode 1)

Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is more benign than many episodes, but it has a very similar sense of irony. It originally aired on September 27, 1960 and stars Audrey Meadows, Les Tremayne, and Stephen Chase. The story by Roald Dahl follows Mrs. Bixby as she visits her secret lover “the Colonel,” who ends their affair but offers her a mink coat as a parting gift. She isn’t sure how to explain the coat to her husband, so she pawns the item without putting a description on the ticket. She then tells her husband that she has found the ticket and instructs him to turn it in for the pawned item. Obviously, things aren’t going to work out in quite the way that she expects.

Bang! You’re Dead! (Season 7, Episode 2)

Bang! You’re Dead! originally aired on October 17, 1961 and is the final episode that Alfred Hitchcock directed for the original half-hour series. It was based on a story by Margery Vosper and stars Billy Mumy as a young Jackie Chester—a spoiled six-year-old who mistakes a loaded gun for a gift from his uncle. The child then proceeds to pretend he is an outlaw and points it at the random people he meets throughout the day. It is only a matter of time before he actually pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, his family has discovered the mistake and tries frantically to locate him. Hitchcock’s gift for building suspense is evident throughout the duration.

Special Features:

This disc also includes a single special feature entitled Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Look Back. Gary Leva’s 15 minute featurette is far from a comprehensive examination of the series, but the retrospective interviews with Norman Lloyd, Hilton A. Green, and Patricia Hitchcock do reveal some general information about how the show was produced and those responsible for its success.

The Best of ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

The second new disc showcases a single episode from all three seasons of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Unlike the first disc, only the first of these episodes is actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock since he only directed a single episode of this series. The following episodes are included:

I Saw the Whole Thing (Season 1, Episode 4)

I Saw the Whole Thing is the only episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour that was actually directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It originally aired on October 11, 1962 and is based on a short story by Henry Cecil. Hitchcock alumnus John Forsythe portrays Michael Barnes in this Rashomon-like courtroom drama with an interesting twist. Barnes has been accused of causing a fatal car accident, but he insists that he is completely innocent and acts as his own attorney at his trial. In court, he proves that the various eyewitnesses called by the prosecution are unreliable.

Three Wives Too Many (Season 2, Episode 12)

Three Wives Too Many was directed by Joseph M. Newman and was based on a short story by Kenneth Fearing. It aired on January 03, 1964 and stars Hitchcock alumnus Teresa Wright, Linda Lawson, Jean Hale, and Dan Duryea. The story follows a bigamist who is suspected of murdering his various wives.

Death Scene (Season 3, Episode 20)

Death Scene was directed by Harvey Hart and was based on a story by Helen Nielsen. The episode aired on March 08, 1965 and features Hitchcock alumnus Vera Miles as Nicky Revere, the daughter of a movie director named Gavin Revere (John Carradine). It is best that viewers see this particular episode knowing as little as is possible about the actual story, but it is certainly one of the most memorable of the hour-long episodes.

Special Features:

This disc includes a single featurette entitled Fasten Your Seatbelt: The Thrilling Art of Alfred Hitchcock. This six minute fluff piece includes interviews with Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Eli Roth, and Joe Carnahan, but none of these filmmakers say anything particularly enlightening. It is almost like an EPK created to sell the idea of Hitchcock’s brilliance without ever revealing anything that isn’t immediately obvious.

Promotional photograph for 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' from 1955. .jpg

This photograph was used to promote ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents‘ in 1955.

It’s nice to have both of these new standard definition discs included here, but it is impossible not to wonder why Universal didn’t choose to release discs with each of the seventeen Hitchcock-directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his single episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour instead. Such a collection would have been a much more appropriate and satisfying addition to the package. What’s more, this approach would’ve only required one more disc (three instead of the two). Actually, it is ridiculous that Universal hasn’t already released these episodes together in a single collection.

In addition, one cannot help but lament some of the choices made by Universal as to which episodes to include. Some of these episodes are inferior to other Hitchcock-directed episodes from that respective season. For example, season two’s One More Mile to Go is vastly superior to Mr. Blanchard’s Secret. In fact, it is one of the best of the entire series. Of course, this particular issue wouldn’t be a problem if all of the Hitchcock directed episodes had been included.

The Presentation:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

HOH Contents

Universal’s ‘The House of Hitchcock’ packaging is a significant improvement over their previous Blu-ray sets. Both of those releases offered book-style packaging. This means that the various discs were housed in folder-like sleeves, and this particular approach leaves discs vulnerable to scratching and other types of damage. Since disc protection should always be a priority, it is nice to see that this collection protects the discs in actual cases. Unfortunately, three or four discs are housed together in only four cases instead of giving each film its own case and artwork. Those who believe that this is a space-saving technique are naïve. This keeps production costs down for Universal, and gives the consumer significantly less bang for the buck. Luckily, they do a fairly good job on the multi-film artwork.

A small book is also included. Those who have purchased one of the earlier sets will know exactly what to expect here. It adds quite a bit of value to the package even if there isn’t much in the way of information here (and some of it borders on being erroneous). It’s really just a fun bit of swag… and swag is what this release contains that the earlier two releases didn’t. There are fifteen art cards that feature the one sheet designs for each of the films included in the set. There are set blueprints for the infamous Psycho house, replicas of letters and memos, stationery with ‘Bates Motel’ printed on it (in case you want to make your friends back home feel envious), and a Psycho-themed “Please, Do Not Disturb” sign.

The theme and design of the package is a bit kitschy, and it is slightly bothersome that it is so Psycho-centric since there are fifteen films included here (and only one of those films is Psycho).

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Final Words:

The House of Hitchcock obviously contains a wealth of essential Hitchcock classics, but the discs included here are the same ones that have been available for quite some time. Those who already own these films on Blu-ray (either individually or as part of The Masterpiece Collection or The Ultimate Collection) can save their pennies.

Those who own The Ultimate Collection will already have the two ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ discs, and those who only own the films individually or as part of The Masterpiece Collection probably won’t feel that these two discs are worth the price of the set (especially considering the fact that they are in standard definition). What’s more, the swag contained in this new release can be filed under “less than meets the eye.” They certainly don’t warrant an upgrade on their own.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Murder!

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Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: August 13, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:42:29

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1554 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 31.93 Mbps

Notes: This marks this title’s North American Blu-ray debut.

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Murder! was the first important ‘who-done-it’ picture I made.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Murder! is one in a series of films following Blackmail (1929) and proceeding The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) that are, in all honesty, very difficult to enjoy as entertainments. I’m sure that this statement will be met with a certain amount of derision and perhaps a bit of anger, but it seems reasonably obvious that the director was experiencing a creative dry spell that wasn’t entirely of his own making.

For one thing, the early sound era produced a great many films that make for very difficult viewing today due the limitations of recorded sound and the fact that sound production completely changed the way that films were shot. The industry struggled to overcome the challenges created by the new format as cameras had to be isolated in small “telephone-booth-like kiosks” which made movement extremely difficult, and actors remained stationary so that the microphone could pick up their voices. Visual aesthetics were suddenly not the primary priority, and the result of this change could be incredibly awkward (to say the least).

This would have been frustrating enough for Hitchcock, but British International Pictures often handed him properties that held little to no interest for him instead of allowing him to choose his own projects. In other words, most of these films were “assignments.” Blackmail and Rich and Strange (1931) seem to be exceptions, but it isn’t clear whether Murder! was the result of yet another assignment, if he chose to make it from a list of inappropriate BIP properties, or if this was his own idea. Whatever the case, it is worth noting that the director often made it a point to stress in interviews that he preferred suspense stories to mysteries and that these two genres are actually antithetical to one another:

“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense.’ And the two things are absolutely miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process—like in a ‘who-done-it’—but suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information… I’ve only made one ‘who-done-it’ many, many years ago because in the course—before you arrive at that five second revelation—there’s no emotion going on… So, the mystery has no particular appeal for me.” –Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

The mystery that he mentions making “many, many years ago” is obviously Murder!, and it is important to remember that this film was made before the director had latched onto the fact that he was at his best when working within the fairly diverse genre of the suspense thriller. This revelation wouldn’t come until the back-to-back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. In other words, Murder!—which is a who-done-it based on a novel by Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane (aka Winifred Ashton) entitled “Enter Sir John”—may have actually helped the director to understand his preferences for suspense over mystery. What’s more, evidence suggests that if the director didn’t choose this property as a potential film project, he was certainly excited and inspired by this particular “assignment.”

enter sir john - dust jacket

This is a dust jacket for “Enter Sir John.” It is worth noting Helen Simpson would work briefly with Hitchcock on Sabotage, and wrote a novel entitled Under Capricorn that the director would later adapt as one of his more unsuccessful films.

REDEVELOPING ‘THE HITCHCOCK TOUCH’

Alfred Hitchcock worked primarily with Walter C. Mycroft on the adaptation and the incredible Alma Reville on the scenario. The three Hitchcocks borrowed an overwhelming amount of the film’s dialogue from the novel itself, but the director didn’t allow the addition of sound to obstruct his ability to render scenes cinematically. Instead, he preferred to utilize the new medium to build upon his already developing cinematic voice.

“The talkies have given most of us a past about which we need to be ashamed. Why, we used to bore a hole in an actor’s head and superimpose tiny images representing his thoughts! Sound has done away with such clumsiness. I am thinking of a sequence from Enter Sir John. A murder has been committed. There is a shot of the curious outside the villa in which the body was found; a picture with a Fleet Street look. Then, a cut to the notice-board in the greenroom of the local theatre; attention being focused on the fact that an understudy is playing. After that, a glimpse of the curtain rising: immediately followed by a close up of the grille opening into the cell of the condemned actress. The camera holds her face, but the voices in the theatre talk about the understudy. The woman’s eyes just respond to the comments and her thoughts are pretty plain.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

In other words, Hitchcock applies cinema’s visual principals to sound. He uses sound in the same manner that he uses his camera (just as he had done previously in Blackmail). One particularly interesting scene concerned a jury deliberation as Sir John tries to explain his “not guilty” verdict to the eleven jurors who disagree.

“…The jury scene turns expressionistic when Sir John’s arguments against the other jurors are beaten back with increasingly loud, increasingly quick replies: ‘Any answer to that, Sir John?’ Finally, he is overwhelmed by their choral ‘Any answer, any answer, any answer to that, Sir John?’ The veer from dialogue to chant puts the audience into Sir John’s beleaguered position.” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Hitchcock’s unique editing rhythm mirrors their chanting, but their words become little more than a distorted symphony of voices as Hitchcock moves into an extreme close-up of our anxiety ridden protagonist’s face. The result is a bit crude due to the aforementioned production limitations, but the scene does find the director experimenting with the cinematic possibilities that sound would offer him.

The moments that follow this exchange are just as interesting. After a despondent Sir John relents and agrees to a guilty verdict, he sits motionless in his chair as the other jurors gather their belongings and leave the room. He begins gathering his things only when the final jurors are making their exit. He finally leaves us alone in the empty room. However, an attendant soon enters the room and begins to clean up as we hear the verdict read to the court and a sentence of death passed down. This is something that couldn’t have been done in a silent film, and it seems slightly audacious even today.

SD - SIR JOHN BEATEN DOWN.jpg

“I tried to stylize a jury persuading a final juryman to agree to the verdict of guilty, and I stylized the voices hammering away at him.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

End of Jury Scene.jpg

Sir John sits despondently as the other Jurors happily file out of the room.

The scene that follows the fade out from this scene is probably the film’s most recognizable, as it is often discussed for its creative (and difficult to achieve) use of sound. Blackmail had the so-called “knife scene,” and Murder! has the infamous “mirror monologue.”

“Most people remember the picture by one particular scene—the one in which Marshall spoke his own thoughts without opening his mouth. The same idea was used more extensively some time later in Strange Interlude. It was considered a somewhat startling talkie innovation. Actually, the idea was one of the prominent methods of stage technique handed down from Shakespeare. Then it went out of fashion. Nowadays, a second actor is brought on so that the actor can speak his lines to him. I have always hated the idea of bringing in an unnecessary person, and this is why I set out to find some way of avoiding it when I had to direct that scene in Murder! I merely went back to the oldest form of all and introduced the soliloquy, brought up to date by making it unnecessary for Marshall to open his mouth.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

This effect was more difficult to achieve at that time than it is today, and Hitchcock would discuss this scene in interviews until the end of his career.

“…[Marshall] had [just turned] the radio on, and I wanted to have the Prelude from ‘Tristan [and Isolde]’ playing. I had a thirty-piece orchestra in the studio, just for this little radio he’s playing in his bathroom. You see, you couldn’t add it later, it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.” —Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

To complicate matters further, a recording of Sir John’s internal soliloquy also had to be played off-screen, and this recording had to be timed to the orchestra’s music! One can only imagine the madness that this probably created on the set, but the coming of talkies often created such chaos. Filmmakers who refused to build upon their already well established stylistic techniques would fail to make an impact in the sound era. Those, like Hitchcock, who became excited at the opportunity to build upon these already established techniques would flourish. However, even these directors would stumble on occasion. The “talkie” era made it necessary for directors to experiment, and these experiments weren’t always successful.

This was certainly true of Alfred Hitchcock, and one particular experimental approach during the production of Murder! helped him to establish some of his more steadfast directorial rules.

“I also experimented with improvisations in direct sound. I would explain the meaning of the scene to the actors and suggest that they make up their own dialogue. The result wasn’t good; there was too much faltering. They would carefully think over what they were about to say and we didn’t get the spontaneity I had hoped for. The timing was all wrong and it had no rhythm.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The failure of this technique helped to solidify his preference to “improvise in the office” while working on the script. The final film shows signs of this failed approach and adds to the clunkiness of the final product.

Publicity Still featuring Herbert Marshall from MURDER!.jpg

“[Murder!] was Herbert Marshall’s first talkie, and the part he played was ideal for him. He immediately proved himself a natural talkie actor.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Abel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Alfred Abel was cast in a Hitchcock-directed German version entitled Mary. His most famous screen performance was probably his portrayal of Joh Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

A BILINGUAL PRODUCTION

Most of what is known about the production of Murder! concerns its status as a so-called “bilingual production.”

“Since it took more time to make a picture, they were often made in several versions in order to reach an international audience. Therefore each film was much more expensive.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The practice was short-lived but crossed continents. There are multiple versions of a great many films made during these early days of sound. There are foreign-language versions of Dracula, The Blue Angel, M, and a great many other titles from this era. However, different directors usually took the reins of the foreign version (although the same sets were usually used). This wasn’t the case with Murder!. British International Pictures trusted Hitchcock to shoot both of these versions.

“We made the German and English versions simultaneously. I had worked in Germany and had a rough knowledge of the language—just enough to get by. In the English version the hero was Herbert Marshall, and we used a very well-known actor, Alfred Abel, for the German version. Before the shooting, when I went to Berlin to talk over the script, they proposed many changes that I turned down. As it happens, I was wrong. I refused them because I was satisfied with the English version. Besides, we didn’t want to shoot two versions that would be too different from each other for reasons of economy.

Anyway, I returned to London without having altered the script. But as soon as we started to shoot, I realized that I had no ear for the German language. Many touches that were quite funny in the English version were not at all amusing in the German one, as, for instance, the ironic asides on the loss of dignity or on snobbishness. The German actors were ill at ease, and I came to realize that I simply didn’t know about the German idiom.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The script was translated into German by Georg C. Klaren and Herbert Juttke, and a handful of changes were made to the story during this process. Most noticeably, the title was changed to Mary (as Diana Baring’s name was changed to ‘Mary Baring’). In addition, Fane’s motives were completely different in the German film. Instead of trying to hide his racial origins, the murderer is trying to conceal the fact that he is a fugitive from justice. However, the production was conceived as a close replica of Murder!

“It was designed technically that I would set up and light a scene with the English cast, [then] take them out, substitute the other actors and do the scene over again in German.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Transcription of François Truffaut’s Interview, August 1962)

MURDER! MARY COMPARISON.jpg

It is clear that the two films mirror one another, but this comparison probably doesn’t give us an accurate account of the differences in framing since home video transfers often crop images for various reasons. (These examples are taken from Sony’s 2007 DVD transfer of Murder! and a 2006 French DVD transfer of Mary.)

This methodology creates a film that mirrors Hitchcock’s British version more often than not, but it didn’t completely eradicate the insanity created by shooting two films at the same time. Charles Landstone—who portrayed one of the jurors in Mary—remembered the chaos created by the bilingual shoot and reminisced about his experiences in his memoir. Apparently, the prospect of interpreting another a role being portrayed by another actor at the same time made Landstone apprehensive. However, he managed to find a solution for this unique predicament:

“…Each man had to give his views—Norah Baring was being tried on a murder charge—and Hitchcock had the idea of planting each juryman with a solo shot that displayed his personality. The Englishman in my part was Kenneth Cove, quite a well-known feature actor of the day and a member of the famous Aldwych farce team. I watched him carefully as he went on the set, and thought that if I could copy him I might get through without being sacked as some of the others had been. I saw Hitchcock give me a knowing grin; he hadn’t been fooled, but he didn’t care. For the twelve days that the shooting of the jury scene lasted I followed the same procedure, carefully aping everything that cove did. Nobody seemed to notice, not even Cove.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

It isn’t surprising to learn of Alfred Hitchcock’s tendency to exploit the unusual “bilingual” situation for laughs (or for his own private amusement).

“He had a clapper boy named Harold, and he cast him in the role of the King’s Jester. His cry would be ‘Haro-old!,’ and when Harold dutifully came to heel he would be sent off on one fool’s errand after the other. He made ‘Haro-old’ learn off by heart a sentence in German which he told him to go and repeat to a young actress who was Norah Baring’s counterpart. I forget what it was exactly, but it was the sort of remark that one might expect in the most permissive of today’s scripts. In 1930 it was outrageous. ‘Haro-old’ dutifully repeated it; the girl was startled out of her life and ‘Haro-old’ stammered: ‘E told me to say it.’ The actress, catching sight of Hitchcock roaring his head off, wagged her finger at him in admonition.” –Charles Landstone (Memoir)

However, most of the director’s pranks seemed to be directed at the very difficult Alfred Abel:

“[Hitchcock] transparently disliked Alfred Abel, a stuffy man who didn’t share his sense of humor, Abel refused, for example, to wear the same tweeds-and-raincoat costume as the English star, Herbert Marshall, because it didn’t suit his idea of formality. And he refused to follow Hitchcock’s directions for the scene where a landlady’s children climb over Sir John, who is trying to relax in bed while sipping his morning cup of tea. It is a memorable interlude in Murder! (experimenting with overlapping sound, Hitchcock has a baby bawling throughout), but it had to be restaged for Abel and [Mary]…

…Abel finally stepped into the crosshairs when he objected to Marshall’s special lounge chair. No such privilege had been accorded to the German lead. ‘Hitchcock didn’t trouble to explain,’ wrote Landstone, ‘that Marshall was a 1914-18 war casualty and had a wooden leg, but simply said that provision would be made for the German to rest between the shots… and after lunch a magnificent-looking armchair, far more luxurious than Marshall’s, appeared at the side of the set. On it was Abel’s name, and the latter thanked Hitchcock profusely. Noticing, however, the director’s puckish grin, the German went over to the chair and touched it gingerly with his finger, whereupon the whole contraption collapsed to the ground. Hitchcock’s roar of laughter filled the studio.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) during the production of MURDER! and MARY..jpg

This is a ‘behind the scenes’ photograph of Norah Baring (Diana Baring), Alfred Hitchcock, and Olga Tschechowa (Mary Baring) on the set of Murder! and Mary.

RELEASE AND RECEPTION

“It was an interesting film and was quite successful in London, but it was too sophisticated for the provinces.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, 1966)

The evidence suggests that Hitchcock’s above recollection as to the reception of this film is accurate. While the German Mary only received a limited release in Germany, the British Murder! did quite well upon its release (especially in terms of critical opinion). British critics were especially kind and fast to compare the film favorably with American product. The following review from ‘The Yorkshire Post’ is a case in point:

“…This adaptation of “Enter Sir John,” the novel by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, also deals with crime, but the film leaves you with a convincing impression of real people involved in quite possible situations… There may be melodramatic moments in the film version, but there is no rosy haze and no sham sentiment.

Mr. Hitchcock long ago proved himself the most gifted of British directors, and Blackmail showed that he could handle a talkie every bit as well as a silent picture. Murder! (I prefer the original title of the novel) is much longer and fuller than Blackmail, but no less brilliant. Once more we can enjoy Mr. Hitchcock’s remarkable gift for making every scene and every glimpse say something. His camera is as resourceful as in the days of silence. That feeling which the talkie used to give us of being anchored in a narrow room is entirely overcome.

Sometimes, I think, he pauses too long over details—particularly over his satirical touches. The scene in which the needy stage-manager and his wife go to lunch at Sir John’s West End apartment is extremely amusing, but the amount of footage given to it holds up the action. Still, Mr. Hitchcock’s eye for idiosyncrasies of character and his command over so many levels of English life are a great asset. Murder! is a long film, but so richly packed with material that not for a moment did I find it dull.

The acting is on a level with the direction. Herbert Marshall—a new recruit from the stage — has exactly the right urbanity for Sir John; Edward Chapman is first-rate as the little stage-manager; Edward Percy—another stage recruit—is equally effective as a trapeze artist; and Miss Norah Baring, in her short but difficult part as the suspected girl…

Nor is there any weakness in the production or in the settings. Here we have a home-made film which attempts to do no more than tell a mystery story, but which does its job with complete success. Indeed, the wealth of vitality displayed in the handling of this British picture makes the American efficiency of ‘Raffles’ seem oddly stereotyped, oddly thin.” —Yorkshire Post (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, August 05, 1930)

Hugh Castle, who wrote a condescending but mostly positive piece on Blackmail upon that film’s release, did likewise upon the release of this film. In fact, it is obvious that he prefers Murder! to the director’s “talkie” debut:

“…Hitchcock by now must be an admitted authority on the black arts, having graduated with Blackmail. Hitchcock, of course, is an interesting phenomenon, said he, adopting the quietly introspective style. A rambler rose on an arctic slope. Or perhaps it would be better to say a walrus on Everest. He has his moments. He is the one man in this country who can think cinema. He may never achieve half of what he thinks. One cannot expect too much of the British industry… But Hitchcock’s moments justify themselves. Obviously Murder! had its moments. It may not achieve real unity, but it comes nearer than any of its homemade competitors. And after Two Worlds!

There is a suggestion in Murder! of a talk-film idea which personally has appealed to me from the start of the dialogue film. Too much, in my opinion, is made of the deliberate distortion of sound to make a counterpoint to the visual rhythm. For myself, I have always been interested in the direct linking of sound and picture by the employment of a literary translation in the dialogue of a similar rhythm as is used in the montage… In the jury sequence in Murder! Hitchcock has discovered this same idea. The acceleration of cutting, coupled with the dialogue rhythm, speeding up, speeding up. Speech montage. So much more fundamental than that psychologically interesting ‘knife’ episode in Blackmail.

Much could be said about Hitchcock, his use of the detached camera. Documentation. His efforts to weld literary satire into cinematic development, the old fault for which Lubitsch has to answer. His idea-fertility, the use of dialogue as a thought-medium [in Murder!]—a throwback to the Elizabethan stage, this.

Anyway, Hitchcock gives the screen ideas, in which it is so bankrupt. Murder! has several ideas, flung off, used to serve a purpose and then forgotten. Regarded as a motion picture Murder! is a praiseworthy effort, quite the best thing this country has done. Looked at from the straightforward angle of the film-goer it gets dangerously near the highbrow, which means to say that the fact it has brains may militate against it…” —Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

The review published in ‘The Times’ offers more thoughtful praise but forgoes Castle’s particular brand of snobbery. After praising Marshall’s performance in the film, the review elaborates on Hitchcock’s direction:

“…We find ourselves thrust into a world at once made passionately aware of itself, and Mr. Hitchcock has never been more skillful in revealing the inner lives of his characters and the strangeness of the scene that enfolds them. Murder!, then, is not simply a brilliant exercise in mystery melodrama. Like most of Mr. Hitchcock’s work, it tells us about the life as well as the lives of his characters, and we cannot follow him into Sir John’s study or into the actress’s lodgings without knowing more of the world about us than we did before. In short, Mr. Hitchcock’s method is that of the creative artist. He has produced a picture of which any country might be proud, and has shown that when so minded we can make films superior in intelligence and style to any submitted to us by America or Germany.” —The Times (September 23, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes offered the film plenty of qualified approbation and also predicted a successful future in film for Herbert Marshall:

“Probably the best of the pictures recently produced in Great Britain, this boasts a strong story, capably acted by a fine cast. Top honors go to Herbert Marshall, a good looking and capable hero, who solves the murder mystery. The picture has the fault common to many British films of too much dialogue and lack of action, but good direction surmounts this obstacle and the suspense is sustained throughout…

… There are no names of American prominence in the cast, but Marshall should be played up, as he is a good potential bet. This looks like a good offering for the weekly changes, as well as subsequents [sic]. The title should give it draw.” —Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Even American trade publications offered the film their blessings as this review by Charles S. Aaronson illustrates:

“This British International film, adapted most expertly by Alma Reville from Clemence Dane’s stage play, ‘Enter Sir John,’ is as good a mystery thrill picture as they come. As seems to be the usual thing with the product of the Elstree studios in England, the cast is exceptionally fine, from the lead of Herbert Marshall as Sir John, actor and amateur detective, down to the most incidental part. Marshall gives an excellent exhibition of self confidence in his role, and handles his lines with a restraint and perfection of diction which is seldom bettered on the talking screen…

…The manner in which Sir John traps the suspect into betraying his guilt, and the odd way in which the murderer beats the law in the end provide an unusual conclusion and put real punch into a mystery thriller which is novel for its new angle. The direction of Alfred Hitchcock is all that anyone could ask. Every motion and speech is pointed toward the climax, with little or no time wasted on unnecessary incidentals. Photography is good throughout, with several scenes easily rating a grade better than good…

…An able cast, and fine adaptation and direction of a story which has at least one or two unusual twists for this type of mystery, make this film one of the most entertaining British International has sent over. There can be little doubt that American audiences will get a real kick out of it.” —Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

The film’s successful reception is understandable, and it is the highlight of a decidedly uneven period in Alfred Hitchcock’s career (1930 – 1933 / Juno and the PaycockWaltzes from Vienna). If it has aged more than some of his later films, one can take solace in the understanding that it is on par with other “talkies” made during this era.

Murder! SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses their disc in a standard Blu-ray case with a sleeve featuring artwork taken from a Columbia Pictures window card design that was used to promote Murder! in US theaters. It’s probably the most famous available artwork for the film, so their decision to use it was wise.

Murder! Menu

The disc’s menu features this same image with accompaniment from Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and the result is both attractive and easy to navigate.

Murder! SS02 - BLOOPER

Those who enjoy finding mistakes will notice that equipment is visible in this particular shot. It seems likely that this error would have been cropped out of release prints.

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino has given Murder! a very healthy high definition transfer that blows previous DVD transfers of the film out of the water. As for the previous standard definition “public domain” transfers, there is absolutely no comparison as those were washed out, blown out, cropped to the point of ruin, and barely watchable. Those who have only seen one of these transfers haven’t actually seen the film. Kino’s Blu-ray transfer is also a step up when one compares it to Sony’s previous DVD edition of the film (which is the only legitimate release of Murder! in North America).

First of all, we see more information on all four sides of the frame when comparing it to the Sony release. Density isn’t always as strong as one might hope during a few scenes, but it is better than it has ever been in the past. Fine detail and clarity have also seen a significant improvement here, while the filmic layer of grain is healthier and better resolved. It’s true that there are occasional signs of damage, but none of these become at all distracting. In fact, it is surprising how clean the print looks considering the film’s age. There are a few instances of the film momentarily fading to black and then back into the scene that must be the result of age. It is a minor weakness that probably couldn’t be improved upon without significant restoration work being done on this title.

Murder! SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

It is important to consider the “early sound” nature of this track before criticizing the inherent weaknesses on display. These weaknesses were always on display! Kino’s 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces the film’s original mono accurately, and those who have only experienced those dreadful “public domain” transfers will be amazed at how clean and clear the track sounds when compared to those earlier releases. Dialogue is clear and usually intelligible. The weakest element is obviously the music as it is a bit boxed in and suffers slightly from the limitations of the era’s sound technology. However, even this has seen improvement when compared to earlier DVD releases of the film. It represents the original sound elements faithfully.

Murder! SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Mary (1931) – (SD Up-Res) – (01:22:07)

Mary Title Card

If Mary had been presented in high definition, it wouldn’t be discussed here as one of the disc’s supplemental offerings. It would have been one of two main attractions. The article that proceeds this disc review discusses the production of Mary, and cinephiles should agree that it is a substantial addition to the disc (even in standard definition). The film hasn’t received a legitimate North American release in any format, so Kino Lorber should be applauded for their efforts.

Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton

Pinkerton gives a well-researched but monotonous commentary that mixes analytical theory with biographical information and production history. The major weakness here is his delivery, and this is a shame because it is an informative track.

Alternate Ending – (10:06)

Alternate Ending

Apparently, the official UK cut of the film was slightly shorter than the version projected for US audiences. The latter of these versions inserts a pair of incidental scenes into the film’s ending in order to make certain points more clearly.

The first of these scenes follows directly after Handel Fane’s dramatic demise. We see his corpse being carried out on a stretcher as Sir John is handed a note that Fane had left behind for him. After looking at the note for a moment, he exits the dead performer’s dressing room. This, of course, leads into a scene that is actually in the official UK cut (the scene where Sir John reads the note out loud).

This scene is then followed by another added scene wherein we see the innocent Nora Baring as she exits the prison to ride off with Sir John. He tells her to save her tears since they will serve her well in his new play. This is the cue for the next (and final) scene in both cuts of the film. Sir John kisses Diana’s hand before tracking out to reveal that this is part of a stage performance. The curtain drops. The End.

In some ways, this US ending (which was included as the primary ending on the Madacy Entertainment DVD) is much smoother and less choppy than the official UK ending, but it also anticipates the final gag of pulling out from what we think is the clichéd “happy ending” kiss. It’s nice to have both endings on the disc, but one actually wishes that Kino Lorber had offered an option for viewers to watch the film with either ending.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon interviews Icon – (14:19)

It’s very pleasing to find that this audio excerpt from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews was included on the disc. This particular portion of the interview finds Hitchcock discussing Murder! and his memories and thoughts are played against a kind of slideshow featuring artwork and production stills. The only complaint that we have about this is that one of the photos is clearly from the production of Blackmail and not Murder! The oversight takes some of the polish off of the presentation.

Introduction by Noël Simsolo – (05:12)

Noël Simsolo’s French-language introduction is an odd and not altogether worthy inclusion as his information isn’t completely accurate and his theories aren’t entirely sound. First of all, it is clear when one examines Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography that he didn’t really latch onto the thriller genre until the back to back successes of The Man Who Knew Too Much. What’s more, Mary wasn’t shot after Murder! as he suggests. These films were shot simultaneously.

One doesn’t like to disagree with popular theories as to thematic subtext, but his adoption of Truffaut’s assessment that the film delves into the subject of homosexuality is questionable. Such subtext does crop up throughout Hitchcock’s work but Murder! is a different animal. In ‘Hitchcock’s British Films,’ Maurice Yacowar makes an argument against such readings:

“Ernest Betts makes an extreme claim: ‘More interesting than any technical gimmicks is Hitchcock’s awareness of dissolving ethical standards, of the whole atmosphere of moral and psychological change. He confronts homosexual and other issues in a manner considered bold at the time.’ Durgnat rewrites the film: ‘It leaves us, sophisticates of 1970, in little doubt that “half cast” means “left handed,” which means bisexual or homosexual.’ To Truffaut Murder! ‘in essence is a thinly disguised story about homosexuality.’ The film is neither ‘about’ nor does it ‘confront’ homosexuality. Well, if it is, it is more than ‘thinly disguised.’

…The ‘half caste’ need not denote homosexuality. Nor does transvestitism, given the British farce tradition of male performers in drag…” –Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Yacowar should have gone farther with his argument, because performing in drag isn’t transvestitism. The performing artist isn’t dressing for his own pleasure but for the pleasure and amusement of an audience. This distinction is important.

In the end, one doesn’t mind Simsolo offering his theoretical interpretation of the film, but the factual errors and assumptions (presented as fact) are regrettable.

Theatrical Trailers and Blu-ray Advertisements:

Murder! (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:12)
Blackmail (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:15)
The Paradine Case Theatrical Trailer – (01:43)
Under Capricorn Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)
Lifeboat (Blu-ray Ad) – (01:28)

The ‘theatrical trailers’ are welcome and worth having on the disc, but the Blu-ray advertisements seem like superfluous additions. One wishes that the original trailers for Murder! could have been found and included. This would have been a significant addition to the disc.

Murder! SS05

Final Words:

Murder! is arguably the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s early (post-Blackmail and pre-The Man Who Knew Too Much) “talkies,” but his best work was still ahead of him. It is fascinating to see how Hitchcock experimented with the new sound medium. However, those who are only casually interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre may find it a challenging entertainment due to the technical limitations that plagued the early sound era.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a remarkable release, and it is certainly recommended for devotees of the director.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Material:

Staff Writer (‘Murder’ at Regal and Alhambra, Burnley Express, May 23, 1931)

Oswell Blakeston (Advance Monologue, Close Up, August 1930)

Staff Writer (Alfred Hitchcock’s Success, Yorkshire Post, August 05, 1930)

Charles F. Hynes (Murder, Motion Picture News, November 01, 1930)

Charles S. Aaronson (New Product: Murder, Exhibitors Herald, November 01, 1930)

Hugh Castle (Attitude and Interlude, Close Up, September 1930)

Staff Writer (Murder, The Times, September 23, 1930)

Alfred Hitchcock and John K. Newnham (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Alfred Hitchcock (AFI Seminar, 1970)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, 1995)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Maurice Yacowar (Hitchcock’s British Films, 2010)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Ken Mogg (Melancholy Elephants: Hitchcock and Ingenious Adaptation, Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen, 2014)

Book Interview: Hitchcock and the Censors

Hitchcock and the Censors - Cover

Publisher: The University Press of Kentucky

Release Date: June 14, 2019

A Conversation with John Billheimer

John Billheimer has written a book that seems long overdue. In Hitchcock and the Censors, he “traces the forces that led to the Production Code and describes Hitchcock’s interactions with code officials on a film-by-film basis as he fought to protect his creations, bargaining with code reviewers, and sidestepping censorship to produce a lifetime of memorable films. By examining Hitchcock’s priorities in dealing with the censors, this work highlights the director’s theories of suspense as well as his magician-like touch when negotiating with code officials.”

Billheimer has graciously agreed to discuss both his book and Alfred Hitchcock’s battle with censorship in this exclusive interview.

Joseph Breen

Joseph Breen headed the Production Code Administration until his failing health forced him to step down in 1954.

AHM: Would you tell us about your new book? How did you happen upon the idea for a book that focused on the director’s relationship with the censors, and what challenges did you face in order to make it a reality?

JB: The book traces the rise of movie censorship in Britain and the US and documents the demands made by the censors on Hitchcock and his reaction to those demands. I got the idea when I accompanied a writer friend to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills and looked into their archives while she was doing research. I stumbled onto the reams of correspondence between the Production Code censors and Hitchcock and was fascinated by them. The biggest challenge in bringing the book to fruition was finding a publisher. Most of the agents and publishers I approached felt that there were already too many Hitchcock books on the market and that it wouldn’t be a money-making proposition.

AHM: It’s surprising to hear that publishers weren’t immediately interested. As a matter of fact, one would think that such a book would have already been written about this topic as it is obviously one that should hold great interest for both casual fans and scholars. Why do you think that this particular subject hadn’t been comprehensively dissected until now?

JB: Funny you should make that observation. The first review of the book, by Leonard Maltin, begins by saying, “Here is a book that should have (and could have) been written years ago.” He goes on to call it “…an important piece of work.” I can only guess at the reasons it hasn’t been comprehensively done until now. The existence and accessibility of the correspondence between Hitchcock and the censors isn’t generally known, and those researchers who have discovered the letters have generally been interested in a particular film rather than the complete archives.

AHM: What was your most surprising discovery while researching the various documents that form the basis for this text? Do you see Alfred Hitchcock’s work differently now than you did when you started the project?

JB: I think the most surprising thing was the sheer volume of the demands made on each of his films. Production Code censors averaged 22.5 comments on each film, ranging from the mundane to the mind-boggling, and each one had to be addressed in order to get a film released. In addition, there were other groups, like the Office of War Information and the Humane Society, whose concerns had to be accommodated as well. I definitely see his work differently now. I’m much more aware of his thought processes and tend to see why he emphasized certain elements. I’m also conscious of those elements that were removed from various sequences, like the overhead shot in Psycho and lines of dialogue in other films.

AHM: How did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and why do his films appeal to you?

JB: While in high school, I worked as an usher in one of the three local theaters in my home town of Huntington, West Virginia, and my theater happened to be the one screening Hitchcock’s films. He was the only director whose name was generally recognized, and I had a chance to watch his films over and over. I was particularly impressed by the audience reaction to such set pieces as the attempted murder in Dial M For Murder, first as the murderer lifts and withdraws the scarf as Grace Kelly raises and lowers the phone from her ear, and then as the killer falls, plunging the scissors deeper into his back, which never failed to elicit an audible gasp from the audience.

Dial M For Murder - The Knife Murder

Seeing repeat screenings of Alfred Hitchcock’s work was a formative experience for Billheimer: “I was particularly impressed by the audience reaction to such set pieces as the attempted murder in Dial M For Murder, first as the murderer lifts and withdraws the scarf as Grace Kelly raises and lowers the phone from her ear, and then as the killer falls, plunging the scissors deeper into his back, which never failed to elicit an audible gasp from the audience.”

AHM: Were there any major differences between the rules put into place by ‘The British Board of Film Censors’ and Hollywood’s production code? Was Alfred Hitchcock able to get away with things in Britain that he would get into trouble for in America? (Or visa-versa?)

JB: The British censors were far more interested in social issues, class distinctions, and keeping workers in their place. American censors were far more concerned with sex and violence. The differences are highlighted in the last group of thrillers Hitchcock made in England before departing for America. These were passed by the British censors, but had to be ‘Okayed’ by the Production Code office before they could be shown in the US. In The 39 Steps, the male and female leads are handcuffed together while fleeing from both the police and enemy agents and are forced to spend the night together in a double bed. In the British version, the couple are fully clothed, at odds with one another, and the man goes to sleep while the woman frees herself from the handcuffs. Before the movie could be imported, American censors insisted that the scene of the two in bed together be excised, even though the two were fully clothed and arguing. The producers argued that eliminating the scene would create a discontinuity (the two leads would be shown preparing for bed while handcuffed and waking up freed), but the American censors insisted on the deletion, observing that they never would have allowed the scene to be filmed in the first place.

AHM: Do you feel that it is possible for a film to “lower the moral standards of those who see it?”

JB: An interesting question. The quote, of course, comes from the opening of the Production Code. I suppose it depends on the strength of one’s moral standards to begin with. If someone has been brought up to believe that drinking alcohol is sinful and they watch Nick and Nora Charles having a fine time downing martinis and solving crimes, they might decide that drinking isn’t so bad after all. So their standards will have been changed. If they then become an alcoholic, do you blame Dashiell Hammett? I’m against the sort of censorship that sets itself up as the supreme authority on what is “acceptable” and has the authority to enforce their views and stifle creativity. There are, of course, limits (child pornography always rears its ugly head). I’d rather see the marketplace sort out what’s acceptable. There are two quotes on censorship that reflect my views and I wish I’d included in my book: “I dislike censorship. Like an appendix it is useless when inert and dangerous when active.” (Maurice Edelman); and “Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there.” (Clare Boothe Luce)

The 39 Steps - Censored Bed Scene

The chaste “bed scene” in The 39 Steps passed the British censors unscathed, but America’s Production Code was less lenient.

AHM: In the books second chapter, you state that “in a few instances, the censors’ suggestions actually improved the final films.” Which of his films were positively influenced, and how did the eventual changes improve them?

JB: Notorious is a good example of a film that was actually improved by the Code. The Breen office actually improved the film by demanding that Ingrid Bergman’s character be reformed (that she “live by her wits” rather than being a “loose woman”) and suggesting that she marry the lead spy, played by Claude Rains, who had once been in love with her. This made Rains a sympathetic villain, since his affection for Bergman was far more evident than that of the nominal lead, Cary Grant.

AHM: Which Hitchcock films were most negatively affected by the demands of the code?

JB: In my view, the Code rule that did the most damage to Hitchcock’s films was the admonition that evildoers must be punished. Blind adherence to this rule led to an implausible explanation for the death of the title character in Rebecca. It also led to the outlandish absolution of Cary Grant’s character in Suspicion, forced an improbable ending onto The Paradine Case, kept Farley Granger from completing the criss-cross murder in Strangers On A Train, and saved Montgomery Clift from the gallows in I Confess. It’s hard to argue that Rebecca was ruined by meddling, since it won the Best Picture Oscar. But the plot was implausible—not that implausibility ever bothered Hitchcock. The novel Rebecca tells the story of a man who kills his beautiful wife as she taunts him over an extramarital affair and claims to be pregnant with another man’s child. In the movie, the wife falls while taunting her husband, hits her head, and dies. The husband then convers up her accidental death just as he did her murder in the book, for no apparent reason, other than the need stick closely to the book’s plot.

I Confess was also harmed by the implausibility forced upon the plot by the Production Code. In the play on which the film is based, the priest played by Montgomery Clift goes to the gallows because he won’t reveal the identity of the real murderer, who has confessed his guilt and is protected by the seal of the confessional. Clift is accused of the murder because he was being blackmailed by the murdered man who, in the play, knew that the priest had fathered an illegitimate child before he was ordained. The Code caused the illegitimate child to vanish, and be replaced by an evening Clift spent with his girlfriend after being caught in a storm long before he decided to become a priest. As a source of blackmail, this rain-soaked evening was pretty thin, but, again, plausibility was never Hitchcock’s first concern. And the need to punish the actual murderer saved Clift from the gallows and a stronger ending.

AHM: In the book’s fifth chapter—which focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick—you mention that these two men had differing approaches in their dealings with the Breen office. You state that while Selznick entered into “open warfare,” Hitchcock preferred to avoid open confrontation and simply manipulated them to his benefit. Could you give us some examples of these two differing approaches? What do you think that this says about the differences in their personalities?

JB: Selznick met the censors head on, arguing openly for concessions in Gone with the Wind and publicly airing his disgust with the Production Code, calling it “insane, inane, and outmoded.” He was equally disgusted with the Production Code’s stance on Rebecca. “The whole story of ‘Rebecca’ is of a man who has murdered his wife,” Selznick complained, “and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who was killed accidentally!” Hitchcock, on the other hand, took an accommodating and conciliatory stance with the Code officials. It was he who suggested the “accidental death” approach to Rebecca. And as his career progressed, Hitchcock bargained effectively with Code officials, getting his way through indirection and seeming accommodation.

The different approaches the two men took with the Code definitely reflected the differences in their personalities. As I wrote in the book, “Selznick was an extrovert, while Hitchcock was subdued and secretive; Selznick was explosive and overbearing, while Hitchcock hated conflict and disagreement…

Notorious - The Kissing Scene

The infamous “kissing sequence” in Notorious was so much more than a way around the censor’s rule that no kiss should last longer than three seconds. However, it may have never existed without the rigid requirements of the Breen office.

AHM: What various strategies Hitchcock use to manipulate the censor’s into allowing material that they would not usually allow?

JB: Hitchcock proceeded by indirection, stalling, sweet-talking, surrendering by degrees, and swapping off lesser elements to protect cherished images. Often, the material to be swapped included questionable elements inserted precisely for that purpose. In Rear Window, Hitchcock captured three separate views of the delectable Miss Torso, filming her once topless from behind, once in a white negligee, and once in black. The topless version was intended as bait for the censors, and he replaced it with the protective negligee footage when they objected, using his “capitulation” to buy concessions in other areas of the film. As his career progressed, Hitchcock would deliberately film elements of dialogue that the censors had flagged as objectionable in their script review, so that they were available as trading chips to protect scenes that raised the censors’ hackles during their review of the finished film.

AHM: Geoffrey Shurlock took over the Production Code Administration after Joseph Breen stepped down in 1954. What were the differences between these two men in terms of production code policy, and how did Alfred Hitchcock use these changes to his benefit?

JB: Joseph Breen was an ambitious anti-Semitic autocrat who enjoyed imposing his will on the studio heads, whom he characterized as “scum” and “lice” in private correspondence. His successor, Geoffrey Shurlock, was a more cultured man with an appreciation for the arts who allowed directors he liked (Hitchcock was one) some latitude in their moviemaking. By way of comparison, the number of comments on Hitchcock’s films under Breen’s supervision (26.7) was more than double the number (12.5) produced under Shurlock. The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch A Thief, which Breen condemned during his final months in office, passed almost intact after he had surrendered the baton to Shurlock.

AHM: How would Hitchcock’s filmmaking be different if he were making his movies today? Would they be better or worse without the code?

JB: Hitchcock’s final three films, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot were made after the Code had been replaced by a version of the rating system we have today. In Frenzy, he took advantage of relaxed restrictions on nudity and violence, but there is little evidence that freedom from the Code affected the other two films. He would certainly have had a broader range of topics to choose from in the absence of the Code, and that could only have improved his output.

The Code had its greatest impact on Hitchcock at the start of his American career, when its influence was strongest. By the end of his career, he was able to manipulate the censors so that they had little real impact on his films. Still, he would have been freed from the need to interact with Code officials, which could only help his output. But the need to bend images to fit Code guidelines led to some of his most memorable scenes. The shower scene is Psycho, one of the most memorable in film history, was precisely constructed to subvert Code guidelines, as was the prolonged “kissing” scene in Notorious. On balance, though, Hitchcock’s films would have been better without the Code, particularly at the start of his American career.

To Catch A Thief - The Fireworks Seduction

“The fireworks seduction scene in To Catch A Thief, which Breen condemned during his final months in office, passed almost intact after he had surrendered the baton to Shurlock.” -John Billheimer

AHM: What is it about Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work that makes it so ripe for scholarship? Why are people still fascinated with his filmmaking?

JB: Hitchcock was the first director whose work was generally recognized by the public, both because of his self-promotion and because of the genuine pleasure he provided in his work. He knew how to push the buttons of his audience systematically and effectively, and provided a lifetime of lasting images. The shower scene in Psycho is easily the most memorable montage ever put on film, and he created other images almost equally memorable, including the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest, the aborted strangling in Dial M For Murder, the avian attack in The Birds, and the excruciating murder in Torn Curtain. Four of his films were listed among the list of the 100 greatest films of all time compiled by the American Film Institute, and nine were among the AFI’s list of the 100 greatest thrillers. He was the cinema’s master technician, and his films are a pleasure to view and study.

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

Book Interview: Hitchcock and Humor

Hitchcock and Humor Cover.jpg

Publisher: McFarland

Release Date: April 23, 2019

A Conversation with Wes D. Gehring

An analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s methodical use of comedy in his films is past due, and Hitchcock and Humor: Modes of Comedy in Twelve Defining Films helps to fill this void. The book examines what should be obvious: Hitchcock systematically incorporated assorted types of comedy—black humor, farce/screwball comedy, and romantic comedy—in his films to entertain his audience.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is honored to have had the opportunity to interview Wes Gehring about his work on the book, and we are proud to present it here for your reading enjoyment.

Alfred Hitchock Being A Big Goof (18)

AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock and Humor for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?

WG: As the back cover blurb suggests, in preparing for TCM’s 2017 online Hitchcock class, as one of the resident scholars, I was shocked that there was no other in-depth examination of the director’s systematic incorporation of assorted types of comedy—black humor, parody farce/screwball comedy, personality comedy, and romantic comedy—in his films to entertain his audiences with compound comic thrillers.

I have done multiple books on all of these comedy genres. Plus, many of my 39 books key upon comedians who mesh with another comedy genre, such as multiple books on Chaplin and his use of dark comedy—someone who influenced Hitchcock in many ways. Fittingly, my last book on the comedian—”Chaplin’s War Trilogy: An Evolving Lens in Three Dark Comedies, 1918-1947“—was picked by Huffington Post as one of the Best Film Books of 2014. It also generated an invitation to speak at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Plus, CHOICE said of it: “Gehring remains supreme in film comedy scholarship.”

Farce/screwball comedy is another genre in which I have also written extensively, from two books on this comedy type, to biographies of key players, from director Leo McCarey, to the “screwball girl”—Carole Lombard, who starred in Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941). Hitchcock scholars treat the film like a sorry step-sister, but no other humor genre is more central to Hitchcock’s filmography (with the exception of dark comedy).

AHM: How did you choose which twelve films to discuss?

WG: A major factor was the often neglected British films—both in general comic terms, and the complete comic neglect of the brilliant Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Secret Agent (1936). Period reviews even compared him to Harpo Marx (I have done two books on the Marx Brothers.) Both films are an inspired mix of black humor and personality comedy with a pinch of farce. Plus, the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much completely blows the bloated American remake out of the water. It is fast, funny, and feels so spontaneous.

Blackmail (1929) was a must because Hitchcock’s career really starts here. It was the beginning of so many of his auteur traits, but it also screams (pun intended) black comedy, especially with it reoccurring Rosetta Stone painting of a court jester.

Hitchcock’s two greatest British films, The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were a given, both because the duo are so tied to ‘tongue-in-cheek’ screwball comedy. Moreover, The 39 Steps borrows heavily from two pioneering screwball comedies—It Happened One Night (1934), and to a lesser extent another pivotal quasi-screwball comedy, The Thin Man (1934). And the beauty of all this is that one need not take my word on it—consult period reviews. I am a devil on period research that has fallen through the cracks of time. For example, just read my well-received 2018 text “Buster Keaton In His Own Time: What the Responses of 1920s Critics Reveal.” Besides being another darkly comic comedian who influenced Hitchcock, I completely focused on period literature and presented a new perspective on the comedian. And Hitchcock’s iffy perspective on humanity and relationships was obviously impacted by Keaton.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a must for reasons already mentioned, and as a bridge to his American films. Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Rope (1948), and Stranger on a Train (1951) fall together as what I call Hitchcock’s “Nietzschen Dark Comedy Trilogy.” Shadow was Hitchcock and wife Alma’s favorite of his films, and no other Hitchcock film better showcases his misanthropic and misogynistic nature. Even Peter Bogdanovich has stated that “Hitchcock definitely gives Joseph Cotton his position [in Doubt].” And this is hardly press kit material, or the director’s career would have been much shorter.

Moreover, Stranger’s key character, Robert Walker’s Bruno, is arguably the director’s greatest dark comedy creation. (I know, what about Norman Bates? Let’s not argue.) Moreover, Strangers is also very close to the director’s misanthropic/misogynistic nature—with his daughter as a mouthpiece for it in her supporting role.

Rear Window (1954) is the director’s most beloved study in voyeurism, as well as the beginning of making the audience feel increasingly creepy about what’s going on in Hitchcock’s world. Indeed, anyone who would rather spy on his neighbors than spend time with Grace Kelly has issues. And Jimmy Stewart’s phallic cast merely underlines his messed-up priorities in almost every shot.

The Trouble with Harry (1955) was Hitchcock literally doing an obvious black comedy and somehow failing at the box office. If for no other reason, that was grounds to further explore it. Plus, though initially seen as an “English” project, there is more early American humor involved in the project that has gone unexplored. Plus, the director’s dive into TV at this time is a factor also neglected.

With North by Northwest (1958), Hitchcock had come full circle back to his British comic thrillers, à la The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, which had brought him to America. Thus, it seemed a good stopping point for examining the various comedy genres he had elaborately intertwined around the filmography’s black comedy core. It is also his most full-blown comedy.

However, one cannot close without some passing commentary on Psycho (1960) in the epilogue, though references to the film are peppered throughout the text. Still, the humor factor here seemed too obvious to belabor over a full chapter.

AHM: Were there any unique challenges that you had to face in making the book a reality?

WG: In doing so many books I am blessed to have a solid working relationship with McFarland and some other publishers. Thus, getting a contract did not prove to be a problem. Of course, the wonderful response of TCM viewers to the online Hitchcock class did not hurt. Thus, I owe a major thank you to the man most responsible for both the series, and my involvement—Richard Edwards. And once again, McFarland did an excellent job in supporting and showcasing my work.

AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and what instigated the interest?

WG: As a Baby boomer, I grew-up with Hitchcock’s TV series and often terrorized my sister with a so-so impression of the director while humming his theme song, the “Funeral March of a Marionette.” It is also an 1872 composition, which, fittingly for my book’s focus, was composed as a darkly comic spoof.

Also, as someone who has written a great deal about dark comedy, I had always wanted to further elaborate on the famous Hitchcock “MacGuffin.” This is something that seems very important at the beginning of a Hitchcock film, but by the close does not really matter. However, since Hitchcock has called all of his films dark comedies, no one has made the natural leap to black humor and a theatre of the absurd primer like Waiting for Gadot (1953). That is, early in Samuel Beckett’s play, and other works of existential ilk, the characters are given the quasi-MacGuffin idea that God and/or something else of extreme importance is to surface by the story’s conclusion. These invariably amusing figures (usually inspired by primal comic characters) then invariably both charm the viewer and give them a reason to watch a rather illogical story (Hitchcock’s modus operandi), in which the big finish never occurs. This serious though seemingly logical tie of the MacGuffin to dark comedy hits all the genre’s basics—from absurdity to death—and fits Hitchcock’s misanthropic nature.

AHM: We occasionally borrow a question from Robin Wood and ask scholars why people should take Alfred Hitchcock’s work seriously. In this instance, I’d like to add to this question and ask why scholars should take the director’s use of humor seriously. Why is it important to examine or study the humor in Hitchcock’s oeuvre?

WG: One should take the time to examine the work of any popular artist seriously, even if he or she is not a favorite. As my graduate school mentor, Richard D. MacCann was fond of saying, “If someone’s work has become unusually popular they have hit upon some basic universals which bear looking into.”

With regard to humor, from my darkly comic perspective, as I noted with the additional definition of a “MacGuffin,” life is essentially a joke. It’s the old axiom of tragedy with time. All the great humorists have a perspective along those lines, whether it’s Vonnegut casually using the mantra “And so it goes” for the worst horrors one can image, to Chaplin observing of life, “In the end it’s all a joke.”

Dark comedy is the bravest of all genres, because it allows one no crutches, no happy endings. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is you die.” Maybe Joseph Heller said it best via Yossarian in Catch-22 (1961): “[Things] could be one hell of a lot better… And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways. There’s nothing mysterious about it. He’s not working at all.” But I most embrace Mark Twain’s perspective, “It’ll be a hell of a heaven if everyone goes that thinks he will.”

Consequently, it’s important to study the neglected humor (especially dark humor) in Hitchcock because it gives his work substance. In The 39 Steps when our hero and heroine reach for each other’s hands at the close, do the handcuffs dangling from his wrist really qualify as a happy ending?

AHM: How did humor in his early British films differ from the humor that saturated his work once he started making films in America?

WG: Hitchcock’s British films were full of more farce, and with Lorre, darkly comic personality. Once in America, after Mr. & Mrs. Smith, there is more focus on the black humor of the aforementioned Nietzschean Trilogy, followed by an often uneven period, in which one remake, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is a step back, while North By Northwest actually improves upon The 39 Steps. In a sentence, American Hitchcock was simply more eclectic, though one film actually changed the nature of horror and campy dark humor—Psycho.

AHM: As you have already mentioned,  Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Trouble with Harry are among the twelve films discussed in your book. These films are often written off as anomalies that do not represent the director’s typical modus operandi. It is obvious that you disagree with this evaluation. Why is it a mistake to write these films off as atypical Hitchcock efforts?

WG: Mr. & Mrs. Smith is important because besides being a natural link to the farcical British films which got Hitchcock to America, it plays as a darker screwball comedy—which was typical of several Lombard examples of the genre involving murder, such as The Princess Comes Across (1936) and True Confession (1938). Then, this farcical segue turns on a dime to Hitchcock’s darker noir-ish films, such as Shadow and Strangers.

The Trouble with Harry is closer to Hitchcock’s American filmography on two counts. First, it’s a whimsical first cousin to the Nietzschean Trilogy about a title character who is spoofing a Jesus figure who won’t stay buried—which is more fully articulated in the novel from which it is adapted. Second, Hitchcock blames its poor box office on trying to be too old school British. But it really has much more to do with many branches of American humor, from 19th century women humorists, to Hitchcock’s American world being greatly impacted by New Yorker writers such as Robert Benchley and cartoonists like Charles Addams. Thus, in its own way, it is another transition film.

AHM: Do you think that the director’s claim that all of his films are dark comedies is accurate or is this merely hyperbole? Where do his darker efforts (such as Sabotage, Notorious, I Confess, The Wrong Man, and Vertigo) fit into this statement? There may be humor in some of these films, but I feel that the overall tone of these efforts are decidedly more serious. Would you agree or disagree with this assessment?

WG: I would stand somewhere between hyperbole and serious on your question about dark comedy in films like The Wrong Man or Notorious. The Wrong Man is pure Kafka, such as The Trial or The Castle—which are essentially black comedies on acid. While Notorious is chapter two of North by Northwest, when Cary Grant begins to wonder if the less than “Saintly” Eva Marie will have any other weekends when she just decides to fall in love with someone.

Remember, I’ve previously written that I see all of life as a dark comedy. There are just degrees. My philosophy of life is “cling to the wreckage.” Hitchcock claims I Confess fails because it had no humor. But given his negative perspective on the Catholic Church, I think that his subtextual damning of an institution (a pivotal part of dark comedy) slides it into a deep state dark comedy. And with Vertigo—between the miscasting of Stewart and Hitchcock channeling his increasingly perverse perspective as director through Stewart’s character—I find it a black comedy for the Hitchcock aficionado.

AHM: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and which film do you think best represents the director’s particular brand of humor?

WG: Given my screwball comedy/American farce background, North by Northwest is my favorite. Grant was also Hitchcock’s favorite actor, as well as mine—someone who brings delightful humor to any situation, however dark. Plus, given Grant was Ian Fleming’s model for James Bond, a great case can be made for this being the first real 007 movie. Finally throw in one of Hitchcock’s most entertainingly slick villains in James Mason, and it is hard not to love the picture.

Though Psycho was the most influential of Hitchcock’s films—literally changing horror from old scary Europe to the contemporary world of that “nice” American boy that lives next door, I would go with The 39 Steps as the director’s most representative film. The BFI has selected it as his best British-made film. Plus, the huge ongoing success (since 2005) of The 39 Steps as a play which so successfully spoofs all of Hitchcock’s work would be my trump card in choosing it.

AHM: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film?

WG: My least favorite Hitchcock films would include several of the silent he made following The Lodger (1926). But in the sound era I struggle with the Jamaica Inn, because of how Charles Laughton takes the picture over and drowns it in his hamminess. Producer David Selznick also controls Rebecca (1940). But at least one still has a wonderful picture (just not a Hitchcock one).

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. This is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Notorious – The Criterion Collection

Spine #137
blu-ray cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: January 15, 2019

Region: Region A

Length: 01:41:37

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 29.73 Mbps

Notes: This title is also available both individually and as part of The Premiere Collection boxed set (both with different cover art) in the DVD format and was given an incredible release in the same format by The Criterion Collection several years before that release.

The film was later given a lackluster Blu-ray release by MGM Home Entertainment both as part of a three-film set entitled, The Classic Collection and as an individual release. This new Criterion edition is from a new 4K restoration transfer of the film and represents an upgrade in quality.

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“In spy films—in all spy films—we have what is called ‘The MacGuffin.’ The MacGuffin, if you go way back, can be the plans of the fault over-looking the pass if it’s in the time of Rudyard Kipling. Or it can be, at the end of [The] 39 Steps, a lot of jumble concerning an airplane secret. It doesn’t matter what you put in. It’s the MacGuffin…

…And the word MacGuffin comes from two men in an English railway compartment, and there’s a baggage rack overhead, and one of the men looks and says, ‘Excuse me, sir. What’s that strange looking parcel above your head?’ And the man looks and says, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’ ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well, it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ So the man says, ‘Well, there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ He said, ‘Then that’s no MacGuffin.’ It doesn’t mean anything.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock, Interview, September 1974)

The MacGuffin doesn’t concern the audience, but it certainly created trouble for Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht when they were working together on the script. It took them quite a bit of time to come up with it, and many of the most suspenseful and iconic sequences in Notorious were born out of their eventual choice. Their source material—a story by John Taintor Foote entitled The Song of the Dragon—wasn’t any help at all.

“At the beginning the producer had given me an old-fashioned story, ‘The Song of the [Dragon]’ that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. It was the story of a young woman who had fallen in love with the son of a wealthy New York society woman. The girl was troubled about a secret in her past. She felt that her great love would be shattered if ever the young man or his mother found out about it. What was the secret? Well, during the war, the government counterspy service had approached a theatrical impresario to find them a young actress who would act as an agent; her mission was to sleep with a certain spy in order to get hold of some valuable information. The agent had suggested this young girl and she had accepted the assignment. So now, filled with apprehensions about the whole thing, she goes back to her agent and tells him all about her problem, and he, in turn, tells the whole story to the young man’s mother. The story winds up with the aristocratic mother saying, ‘I always hoped that my son would find the right girl, but I never expected him to marry a girl as fine as this!’

…Well, after talking it over with Ben Hecht, we decide that the idea we’ll retain from this story is that the girl is to sleep with a spy in order to get some secret information.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

saturday evening post - november 12th and 19th, 1921 (part 1 and 2 of the story)

John Taintor Foote’s “The Song of the Dragon” was a two-part short story that was serialized in the November 12th and 19th, 1921 issues of The Saturday Evening Post.

It’s interesting to note how incredibly well Hitchcock remembered the details of this particular story considering how little he and Hecht actually borrowed from it (although he incorrectly remembered the title of “The Song of the Flame”). However, there is quite a lot that he doesn’t mention. Matthew H. Bernstein provided an even more detailed synopsis in an essay entitled “Unrecognizable Origins,” but those hoping to find similarities between it and the film will find themselves at a loss.

“Foote’s tale is narrated by veteran stage producer William Kinder, who begins the story pondering the impossibility of casting for an ingénue in a new play: experienced actresses are too old to be plausible in the part, and new actresses are too inexperienced to pull it off. He is interrupted by a visit from federal Agent Smith, who asks Kinder to ask an accomplished stage star with whom Kinder worked and was in love to sleep with the German head of a ring of saboteurs, who currently pretends to be a British playboy living the high life on Fifth Avenue. Meanwhile, Kinder grants an audition to an unknown actress on whom he takes pity when she is knocked out in his office.

Kinder’s former paramour rejects the idea angrily and stomps out; the ingénue, Sylvia Dodge, auditions and turns out to be an astonishing performer; and as Kinder is making plans with her for their box office success, Agent Smith turns up again to follow up on his request. Though Kinder gives him the bad news, both men witness Dodge’s spontaneous expression of her intense desire to do something to help the young American recruits marching through Manhattan before going off to fight in World War I. Before Kinder can stop him, Smith has whisked Dodge away for the assignment. Part 1 of the story ends here.

Part 2, published a week later, picks up with Kinder angry that Dodge, having accomplished her espionage mission, has not returned as she has promised to his office to resume her incipient career. He chews out Agent Smith because she has chosen to entertain the troops instead. A scene follows between Dodge and her new beau, Captain Eugene Weyeth. The son of a wealthy New York family, Weyeth proposes to Dodge; she holds him off with the promise of eventual marriage and shows up in Kinder’s office to ask his help. She rightly suspects that the captain’s parents will be suspicious of her and will reject her when they learn, as they will, of her sleeping with the enemy. Kinder accompanies Dodge to the Weyeths’ apartment, where she tearfully explains her past service to her country, producing a letter of commendation from the president as proof. The Weyeths accept her with enthusiasm, and the story ends.” –Matthew H. Bernstein (Unrecognizable Origins, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Obviously, the Academy knew what they were doing when they chose to nominate the film in the Best Original Screenplay category—this was truly an original story that owed very little to Foote’s work. It is no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht struggled with the film’s plot for such a long while. They simply couldn’t figure out what their Nazi villains would be trying to accomplish in Rio. What would Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) discover when behind enemy lines? Countless ideas were tossed around, and one of these even made it into the earliest drafts of the script. Unfortunately, that earlier MacGuffin lacked simplicity.

“As always, we proceeded by trial and error, going off in several different directions that turned out to be too complex… Our original intention had been to… show groups of German refugees training in secret camps in South America with the aim of setting up an enemy army. But we couldn’t figure out what they were going to do with the army once it was organized. So we dropped the whole idea in favor of a MacGuffin that was simpler, but concrete and visual: a sample of uranium concealed in a wine bottle…

I had only one clue. A writer friend of mine had told me that scientists were working on a secret project some place in New Mexico. It was so secret that once they went into the plant, they never emerged again. I was also aware that the Germans were conducting experiments with heavy water in Norway. So these clues brought me to the uranium MacGuffin.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Of course, both Alfred Hitchcock and Ben Hecht were precisionists in many respects and wanted their idea validated by some higher authority. What’s more, they had a number of questions about various details concerning their then-hypothetical bomb.

“…As I’m not sure about this uranium and how big an atom bomb is, I put my hat on and go to the California Institute of Technology, where the most important scientist is working: Doctor Milliken, director of the Manhattan project. Naturally, I don’t know that he’s directing the Manhattan project. I don’t even know the Manhattan project exists. I only know that in New Mexico there exists a secret place where everyone goes in and no one comes out—a journalist told me about it. So I go in, ‘Good day, doctor. How are you?’ I shake hands with the doctor, who has a bust of Einstein in the corner of the room, and I ask him, ‘Doctor, how big would an atom bomb be?’ The scene that follows! He jumps up, yelling, ‘Do you want to be arrested? Do you want to get me arrested too?’ Then he spends an hour explaining to me that it was impossible to make the atom bomb, that the atom bomb never would be made, and that consequently I should not make the atom bomb my MacGuffin. I said all right. But I still had the bottle of uranium in the scenario, [and it was] a dramatic sequence. I didn’t want to give up the uranium, and so I made the MacGuffin the Atom Bomb anyway, and two years later the bomb exploded on Hiroshima.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock: Mr. Chastity, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, 1963)

Interestingly, the director later learned that the FBI had him under surveillance for three months after that fateful visit. In any case, the entire script seemed to fall into place once they finally decided upon using Uranium for as their gimmick.

“The MacGuffin sparked the writers. Tossing out the opera house scene where Sebastian first realizes that Alicia is a spy [in earlier drafts of the script], Hecht and Hitchcock devised a suspenseful episode that chillingly involved Alicia. Late one night, having learned that Sebastian keeps in his basement a mysterious substance pertinent to the group’s scientific research, Alicia explores the wine cellar alone. She accidentally breaks a bottle and spills its contents—‘sand’—to the floor. American intelligence identifies the substance as uranium. In April 1945, a month before the military began work on the deployment of the atomic bomb, two months before certain of Churchill’s advisors knew of it, and three months before the Alamogordo test that demonstrated its efficacy, Hecht and Hitchcock brought uranium and atomic warfare to Notorious.” –Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

The aforementioned sequence would be fine-tuned in a number of ways. Most importantly, T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) was eventually incorporated into this portion of the film, and the idea of hiding the uranium in a wine bottle suggested a motif that Hitchcock employed throughout the film’s duration. Better yet, the details and minutia regarding the atomic bomb ended up being completely unimportant as the only element that was used in the plot was the uranium ore. Unfortunately, none of this kept David O. Selznick from raising an eyebrow at the idea.

“…The producer said, ‘What in the name of goodness is that?’ I said, ‘This is uranium; it’s the thing they’re going to make an atom bomb with.’ And he asked, ‘What atom bomb?’ This, you must remember, was in 1944, a year before Hiroshima… The producer was skeptical, and he felt it was absurd to use the idea of an atom bomb as the basis for our story. I told him that it wasn’t the basis for the story, but only the MacGuffin, and I explained that there was no need to attach too much importance to it. Finally, I said, ‘Look, if you don’t like uranium, let’s make it industrial diamonds, which the Germans need to cut their tools with.’ And I pointed out that if it had not been a wartime story, we could have hinged our plot on the theft of diamonds, that the gimmick was unimportant. Well, I failed to convince the producers, and a few weeks later the whole project was sold to RKO. In other words, Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, the script, Ben Hecht, and myself, we were sold as a package.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

This is undoubtedly an oversimplification as there were a variety of factors that contributed to Selznick’s decision to sell the project (the biggest of which was likely the producer’s financial situation at the time). He was pouring money and energy into Duel in the Sun as he felt that this film could best Gone with the Wind. In any case, the producer simply wasn’t as invested in the project and decided to shop the package around to various studios. He tried selling the film’s to the largest studios in Hollywood before finally selling it to RKO for $800,000 and fifty percent of the film’s gross earnings.

In all fairness to Selznick, he wasn’t the only producer in Hollywood to be put off by the film’s use of uranium.

“I was sailing on the Queen Elizabeth, and I ran into a man called Joseph Hazen, who was an associate of producer Hal Wallis [of Warner Brothers]. He said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to find out where you got the idea for the atom bomb a year before Hiroshima. When they offered us the Notorious script, we turned it down because we thought it was such a goddamn foolish thing to base a movie on.’ … I answered, ‘Well, all it goes to show is that you were wrong to attach any importance to the MacGuffin. Notorious was simply the story of a man in love with a girl who, in the course of her official duties, had to go to bed with another man and even had to marry him. That’s the story. That mistake of yours cost you a lot of money, because the movie cost two million dollars to make and grossed eight million dollars for the producers.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that David O. Selznick hated the uranium MacGuffin, Leonard Leff argues that this is an erroneous claim in the pages of “Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood.

“Selznick not only called the decision to use uranium and the bomb ‘a tremendous thing,’ he even urged Hecht and Hitchcock to devise a culminating scene in which the Germans reveal the power of their discovery: they use ‘a bomb that could be held in the palm of one’s hand’ to blow up an entire mountain. An earlier draft had contained an allusion to such an experiment. Selznick now wanted to use the trick department to realize it. Exploding the bomb ‘makes the whole thing real,’ he told Hecht and Hitchcock, ‘and will give the picture size and spectacle.’” –Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

It is true that Selznick eventually came around to the idea of the uranium, but there are two very important points that Leff manages to glaze over. The first of these points has to do with the fact that he seems to have become enthusiastic about this idea after selling the project to RKO (who had taken over the project in mid-July). Selznick’s newfound enthusiasm seems to have come soon after the fateful events that occurred soon after this in early August. After the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima on the sixth and then on Nagasaki on the ninth, the producer began seeing dollar signs (remember, that he would still receive fifty percent of the film’s profits).

The script was still being developed at this time and even saw an unused polish by Clifford Odets before Ben Hecht returned to the project to undo his alterations. This setback added to an already lengthy writing period, and Selznick urged RKO to light a fire under Hitchcock and Hecht so that Notorious could be one of the first films to the box-office to exploit this topical atrocity. What’s more, he wanted to build up the MacGuffin with the aforementioned embellishments. He wanted spectacle—and this brings us to that second “glazed over” point—the producer’s desire to build up and elaborate upon the MacGuffin betrays his misunderstanding of what a MacGuffin actually is and also what the film was supposed to be about. This was the point that Hitchcock was trying to make: Notorious isn’t about uranium ore. It isn’t about atomic warfare. The audience isn’t concerned with such things beyond the fact that it puts the film’s heroine in mortal danger.

The story itself concerns itself with another kind of politics: sexual politics. Many critics and scholars prefer to discuss the film’s themes regarding the conflict of “love versus duty,” but there are more interesting conflicts at the heart of Notorious. It is a film about the toxicity of male insecurity, passive-aggressive behavior, and the games that couples tend to play with one another. Of course, there are moments of serenity in the film—including a celebrated kissing sequence that represents the calm before a storm that lasts throughout the rest of the film’s duration. It is one of the film’s most remarkable passages, and the audience hates to see the couple part when it is over:

screenplay excerpt - the kissing embrace

The scene was so much more than a way around the censor’s rule that no kiss should last longer than three seconds. It was born out of an understanding that such moments are fragile and fleeting. Alicia doesn’t want anything to interrupt this moment, because she knows that the wall of ice that Devlin has built around his heart is melting. She also knows that another cold front could blow through at any moment. It is no wonder why the director seemed to relish discussing the scene with journalists throughout the rest of his long career.

“It’s always seemed to me that when two people embrace, they don’t want to let go… I distinctly remember where I got the idea of not letting them go—of having the woman not let go of the man, even though he was on the telephone. It was long before I made the film. Before World War II, and I was on a train in France going from Boulogne to Paris and it was on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the train was going through the station of Etapes, moving quite slowly, when I saw a man and a woman, arm in arm, and he was urinating against a wall but the girl never let go of him. She was glancing around, looking at him and what he was doing now and then, but she would not move her arm away from his, she did not want to break that [moment].” –Alfred Hitchcock (Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, December 14, 1969)

Unfortunately, the moment is eventually broken as Devlin dutifully leaves to meet with his superiors so that they can give him Alicia’s assignment: she is to “land” Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who was once an associate of Alicia’s father. The agents hope that this will allow her to learn his secrets. The scene that follows shows us a side of Devlin that he doesn’t show Alicia—he stands up for her, but he isn’t resolute in his argument:

screenplay excerpt - defending her honor

In the filmed version, Prescott doesn’t ask “Have you some personal interest in Alicia Huberman?” He replaces this with “Why do you think she won’t do it?” When Devlin answers that she hasn’t had any experience, Prescott cheekily responds, “Come now. What experience does she lack, do you think?” Of course, this question cuts to the heart of Devlin’s own insecurities, and he gives up his argument completely when he is told that Sebastian was once in love with Alicia. His thawing wall of ice freezes back completely upon hearing this information.

This sets up what is one of the key scenes (no pun intended) in the relationship between our two primary protagonists wherein both Alicia and Devlin play a game of emotional chicken. They love each other, but Devlin does not want to tell Alicia his feelings and later learn that she cannot be true to him. He has given Alicia her assignment: She is to bed a Nazi agent in order to find out secrets about his organization:

screenplay excerpt - testing each other

Alicia is angry at Devlin for not speaking up for her to his superiors. Why would he not tell them that she is the wrong woman for such a job? We happen to know that he did speak up for her, but he refuses to admit this to Alicia. Devlin does not want her to accept the assignment and will not let these feelings be known. He needs to know if he can trust her and can only know for sure if she refuses the assignment. Alicia wants Devlin to tell her that he believes in her and not to take the assignment because he loves her. Neither character will budge. They are testing one another and both of them fail miserably. As a result, Alicia ends up bedding the agent, and Devlin resents her for this choice (even though she is only doing it because she believes it is what he wants). These games intensify later when Alicia baits Devlin during a rendezvous at the races:

screenplay excerpt - racetrack love test

The scene as it appears in the film is more streamlined, but all of the important beats are there and each beat hits hard. The characters in Notorious have a habit of testing one another’s love and devotion. Even Alexander Sebastian plays emotional games with Alicia as he is every bit as insecure as Devlin. At a dinner, Alicia apologizes to Sebastian for her behavior the last time that they were together. He responds by saying, “Well, then I’ll test your repentance immediately.” Sebastian worries that she has feelings for Devlin, and dances around the subject in order to get information out of her. He even pretends at one point to forget the issue and secretly continues to worry. Even his proposal to Alicia is simply a form of manipulation. When Alicia claims that Devlin means nothing to her, Sebastian’s replies, “I’d like to be convinced. Would you maybe care to convince me, Alicia, that Mr. Devlin means nothing to you?

In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, Donald Spoto discusses the obvious motif of wine bottles and alcohol in the film and then elaborates on Alicia’s habit of using alcohol to mask her emotional pain. Devlin is also protecting himself from feeling emotional pain, but he does this by pushing Alicia away in a variety of ways (including verbal jabs about her past). Of course, this behavior is what pushes Alicia directly into the arms of Sebastian. Self-preservation becomes self-destructive in Notorious.

claude rains

“Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman made a nice couple, but in the close shots the difference between them was so marked that if I wanted them both in a frame, I had to stand Claude Rains on a box. On one occasion we wanted to show them both coming from a distance, with the camera panning from him to Bergman. Well, we couldn’t have any boxes out there on the floor, so what I did was to have a plank of wood gradually rising as he walked toward the camera.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

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What makes the film’s incredibly well drawn characters and rich subtext all the more remarkable is that they are rendered without sacrificing any of the suspenseful set pieces that Hitchcock has built his reputation upon. In fact, the brilliant crane shot that begins with an incredible overview of a party being held at the Sebastian mansion and ends with an extreme close-up of the famous UNICA key in Alicia’s hand is one of the most celebrated in Hitchcock’s career.

“That’s again using the visual. That’s a statement which says, ‘In this crowded atmosphere there is a very vital item, the crux of everything.’ So taking that sentence as it is, in this crowded atmosphere, you go to the widest possible expression of that phrase and then you come down to the most vital thing—a tiny little key in the hand. That’s merely the visual expression to say, ‘Everybody is having a good time, but they don’t realize there is a big drama going on here.’ And that big drama epitomizes itself in a little key.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Notorious is full of incredible moments like this one, but the film isn’t about these iconic moments; it is merely elevated by them. Every scene is either rich in subtext, suspense, or both all at once. It has been discussed and dissected endlessly and from a variety of different viewpoints, but there is still so much more to discover with each respective viewing.

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 MacGuffins

The Criterion Collection houses their disc in the same sturdy clear case that has become the standard for their releases (we actually prefer this to their digipaks). The cover sleeve includes thematically appropriate cover artwork that has been credited to Greg Ruth. It’s a nice design that captures one of the film’s most memorable moments. Also included in the case is a pamphlet that includes more attractive artwork and an interesting essay by Angelica Jade Bastién entitled, “Notorious: The Same Hunger.” Information about the transfer and technical credits are also included therein.

menu

Criterion’s static menu features film-related art and is in the same style that collectors have come to expect from Criterion’s Blu-ray releases. It is attractive and should be intuitive to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion includes detailed information about the film’s digital restoration in their included pamphlet:

“A new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director Film scanner at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging in Burbank, California, from three elements: the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain, both held by the Museum of Modern Art, and a 35mm safety fine-grain held by the British Film Institute. Several sections of the original camera negative, the primary source for this restoration, have sustained damage over the years and been replaced by duplicate negatives; for some of these portions, the fine-grains were used. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI Film’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for jitter, flicker, small dirt, grain, and noise management.” –Liner Notes

Their efforts have resulted in a noticeable upgrade in terms of image quality when compared to the earlier MGM Blu-ray. It has a sharper appearance and the image isn’t slightly squeezed (and was on the MGM disc). The cleaner appearance of this new image certainly stands out as does an improvement in density. It seems like the restoration team took more care with this transfer, and the grain seems to be healthier here as well. Clarity is okay as well but doesn’t seem to be much better here than on the MGM disc. Stability is respectable and the movie looks great in motion. The overall experience feels just a bit more filmic.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Interestingly, the film’s soundtrack was taken from a different source than the image as explained in the included pamphlet:

“The original monaural soundtrack was first restored in 2001 from a 1954 35mm acetate release print and a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master. Additional restoration work was performed by the Criterion Collection for this release using Pro Tools HD and iZotope RX.” –Liner Notes

It’s a nice job and the Linear PCM Audio track sounds much better than one might think it should. Music suffers the most from the film’s dated production techniques, but it certainly represents the film’s original Mono elements admirably. Anomalies that might distract have been minimalized so that hiss, hum, crackle, pops, and other assorted nonsense is never allowed to take viewers out of the movie.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

In addition to two feature-length commentary tracks and an hour-long radio drama, Criterion has included over two hours and thirty-one minutes of video-based material that should thrill fans of the film. In fact, this supplemental package would have earned a perfect score if not for the fact that there are a number of supplements from previous releases of Notorious that haven’t been carried over to this disc.

It almost seems ungrateful to even mention the missing supplements considering the embarrassment of riches that have actually been included here.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Marian Keane (2001)

Anyone who has listened to Marian Keane’s other commentary tracks will have a decent idea what they can expect from this one. What we are given here is a feature-length audiovisual essay that discusses what is happening on the screen in a manner that dissects it in terms of Keane’s personal interpretation. It’s somewhat dry and scholarly, but it will interest those who enjoy theoretical analysis (even if they disagree with her interpretation). However, I imagine that there are plenty of people who will prefer Behlmer’s track.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Rudy Behlmer (1990)

Rudy Behlmer’s track is more information based as we earn a bit about the production and its backstory. There are a lot of anecdotal tidbits, excerpts from production memos and correspondence, various books about the director, biographical information, and certain technical details. There is the occasional theoretical comment, but this one is largely about the film’s production and the various people who were involved with it.

Once Upon a Time: Notorious (2009) – (52:02)

This interesting episode/documentary was originally a part of the French series Once Upon a Time. A variety of archival footage is utilized throughout the duration as are interviews with scholars and other pertinent subjects; including David Thompson, Bill Krohn, Charlotte Chandler, Sidney Gottlieb, Claude Chabrol, Peter Bogdanovich, Stephen Frears, Isabella Rossellini, and others. We even hear from Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman via the aforementioned archival footage. However, it should be made clear that the made clear that the subject of Notorious isn’t discussed in broad general terms. Topics discussed certainly cover the film’s production—including script development, Selznick’s sale of the package to RKO, and production information—but the program’s objective is to examine the sociopolitical environment of the era in which the film was made and how these things influenced the film. It’s an incredibly interesting documentary that is essential viewing for fans of both this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s other work. It is the disc’s best supplement.

Writing with the Camera – (19:54)

Writing with the Camera is the disc’s second-best supplementary program, and focuses on Alfred Hitchcock’s visual style and the various ways that he planned his productions. There are a few contradictory comments as to how the director worked throughout this piece, but this only makes it more interesting and worthwhile. Daniel Raim includes a number of interviews with some of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaborators as well as a number of scholars; including Steven Katz (who literally wrote the books on the visualization process in film directing—“Film Directing, Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen” and “Film Directing, Cinematic Motion: A Workshop for Staging Scenes Film”), Bill Krohn (who wrote Hitchcock at Work), Robert F. Boyle (production designer), Henry Bumstead (production designer), Harold Michelson (storyboard artist), and a number of other experts. The program begins discussing Hitchcock’s use on the visual in Notorious, but there is quite a bit of material on The Birds, and it mentions a few of the director’s other films throughout the duration as well.

Poisoned Romance – (21:01)

Donald Spoto—the man who invented the revisionist biography—discusses the film’s story and production in this conversation recorded specifically for this release. We learn about the film’s “source material,” the story and its narrative structure, Alfred Hitchcock’s frustrating relationship with David O. Selznick, the director’s collaboration with Ben Hecht, and Spoto’s own observations. It’s a nice interview but pales in comparison with the previous two programs.

Glamour and Tension – (23:25)

John Bailey’s interview adds enormously to the value of the disc, but this is mainly due to a very short portion of the program that discusses the challenges of the film’s famous crane shot. His comments on the shot are incredibly technical but his explanation is coupled with illustrations that make it incredibly easy for any layperson to understand. Less interesting are his observations about the rear screen work in Notorious. It’s nice to have a well-respected cinematographer discuss Hitchcock’s visual style, but it is a bit more uneven than some of the disc’s other offerings.

Powerful Patterns – (29:42)

The final sequence is broken down by David Bordwell as is how this sequence is set up throughout the entire movie. It’s both an informative and engaging half hour.

Pathe Reporter Meets… Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock (1948) – (00:48)

The Pathe newsreel footage is actually more relevant to Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn as it cover’s Bergman’s arrival in the United Kingdom to shoot the film. However, it is a nice artifact that should be of interest to fans of both the actress and the director.

Lux Radio Theatre Adaptation of Notorious (1948) – (59:56)

This radio play originally aired on January 26, 1948 and starred Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. It’s certainly interesting but has nothing on the actual film. Notorious is such a visual film experience that the radio version simply falls a bit flat. It is certainly great to have it included here for comparison. The show is played over a still image of Ingrid Bergman.

Theatrical Trailers and Teasers

There are four trailers for the film included on the disc:

A Notorious Woman of Affairs – (02:09)
Gems in Her Hair and Ice in Her Heart – (00:55)
Notorious! Notorious! Notorious! – (00:52)
All She Was Was All She Wanted – (00:16)

Some of the director’s other movies were promoted by much more interesting and creative trailers. The four trailers for Notorious are typical of the hyperbolic trailers of its era. It’s nice to have them included as one likes to see how classic films were marketed.

WHAT WASN’T INCLUDED?

We are missing a number of textual supplements from the previous Criterion DVD release (excerpts from “Song of the Dragon,” production correspondence, letters from the government, script excerpts of deleted material, and an essay). However, these text screens would have been much better had they been included as part a booklet instead of on the disc and it is doubtful that many will prefer those to the video-based material that has been included on this release. However, there are a number of features included on the earlier MGM Blu-ray that could and should have been carried over to Criterion’s disc (or as a part of a 2-disc release).

That release included a commentary track by Rick Jewell that wasn’t discussed a wide variety of topics—including the political landscape of post-war America and what the film meant to RKO at the time of the film’s release. A second commentary by Drew Casper was more theoretical and could even be described as an “audio essay.” There was quite a bit of history on these tracks that would have been a terrific asset to this new disc. Even more sorely missed is a half-hour documentary entitled The Ultimate Romance: The Making of ‘Notorious.’ We admit that some of the material revealed during this program is discussed on the various supplements that have been included here, but it is still unfortunate that it wasn’t included as it does contain a wealth of information that wasn’t included. The same can be said for a thirteen-minute featurette entitled Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Spymaster as it focused on the director’s influence on the espionage genre. The omission of the clip from the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony is also sorely missed as it included portions of Alfred Hitchcock’s “thank you” speech and Ingrid Bergman’s presentation of the famous UNICA key that featured in Notorious.

It was rather surprising to discover that this release didn’t include audio excerpts from Hitchcock’s infamous interviews with François Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich as they have included them on a few of their previous Hitchcock releases. It’s very difficult to understand why they weren’t here and they are sorely missed. There was also an isolated music track and a restoration comparison included on the MGM disc, but the comparison isn’t pertinent to this release and the music track isn’t as essential as the various supplements already discussed.

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Final Words:

The next time someone tells you that Alfred Hitchcock films are all style and no substance, simply suggest to that poor misinformed soul that they watch Notorious. It is one of the director’s masterpieces and is essential viewing not only for Hitchcock enthusiasts but for anyone who enjoys great cinema.

Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is a significant improvement over the earlier MGM disc and includes a great supplemental package. However, those who own that earlier release may wish to keep that disc as it contains a number of supplements that haven’t been carried over to this release.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

John Taintor Foote (Song of the Dragon, Saturday Evening Post, November 12 and 19, 1921)

Unknown (Harrison’s Reports, July 27, 1946)

Unknown (Grant, Bergman, Hitchcock, Hecht—Wow, Film Bulletin, August 05, 1946)

Bosley Crowther (Hitchcock Thriller Opens at Radio City, New York Times, August 16, 1946)

Various Authors (What the Newspaper Critics Say About New Films: Notorious, Film Bulletin, August 19, 1946)

Frank S. Nugent (Mr. Hitchcock Discovers Love, New York Times, November 03, 1946)

Unknown (The Times, February 1947)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

Oriana Fallaci (Alfred Hitchcock: Mr. Chastity, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

H. E. F. Donohue (Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock, New York Times, December 14, 1969)

Rui Nogueira and Nicoletta Zalaffi (Hitch, Hitch, Hitch, Hurrah, Écran, July-August 1972)

Andy Warhol (Hitchcock, Interview, September 1974)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, April 01, 1983)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Sidney Gottlieb (Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, 2003)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Matthew H. Bernstein (Unrecognizable Origins, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Angelica Jade Bastién (Notorious: The Same Hunger, 2018)

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Book Interview: The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman

Cover

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Release Date: September 15, 2018

A Conversation with Constantine Santas

It doesn’t matter what you’ve read or what you may have heard about the importance of Alfred Hitchcock’s collaboration with Grace Kelly. Ingrid Bergman’s place in the master’s legacy is every bit as important and possibly even more interesting. Needless to say, any book examining her work is worth reading for fans of the director as well as for those who admire this incredible actress.

In “The Essential Films of Ingrid Bergman,” Constantine Santas and James Wilson look at what they consider her most notable performances (and they had plenty to choose from). Her career began in Sweden in the 1930s and lasted until the year of her death in 1982, but this text focuses on the 21 films that they consider her most noteworthy. Special attention is paid to those aspects of her acting that made her stand out most—her undeniable range of emotion, her stunning vulnerability, and her indisputable beauty. Among the films discussed in this volume are Casablanca, Gaslight, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Notorious, Stromboli, and Autumn Sonata. Each chapter is devoted to a specific film and provides a general production history, a plot summary, thematic highlights, and major award details.

Constantine Santas (professor emeritus at Flagler College) agreed to sit down for a series of questions about his new book, Ingrid Bergman’s incredible legacy, and the impact that certain directors may have had on her craft.

AHM: I’ve read the book and enjoyed it immensely. Could you describe THE ESSENTIAL FILMS OF INGRID BERGMAN for our readers and what your intentions were in writing such a book?

CS:The Essential Books of Ingrid Bergman” was part of a series called, “The Essential Films…” of several books on Hollywood stars by Rowman and Littlefield, based on their most important works. Books on Mickey Rooney, James Garner, Jack Nicholson, and my own, “The Films of Humphrey Bogart,” have already appeared, along with others that I may not know about. My intentions in writing the book was basically derived from the aim of the series: to select the best films of Ingrid Bergman, out of a total of 51 films, including her pre-Hollywood Swedish works (but not including her television works, with the exception of A Woman Called Golda), for close analysis, including introductory materials, plot designs, and theme selections. These guidelines were set by the publisher and we followed them closely. Obviously, the process of selections was in close cooperation with Stephen Ryan, the chief editor of R&L. With these guidelines in mind, we set out to produce a book on Bergman that would include her best work while sketching out a portrait of an actress who was thoroughly devoted to her work, talented, beautiful and one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”

AHM: When and how did the idea for the book arise, and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?

CS: I started thinking about doing a book on Bergman while I was still finishing up Bogart. Aside from their Casablanca collaboration, the two had certain similarities in outlook and theme. Both had come from modest backgrounds (Bogart had debts to play after his father’s financial failures) and both rose by dint of talent and dedication to the art of cinema. Both had extensive backgrounds before they became famous, Bogart as a stage actor, Bergman a Swedish actress before David O. Selznick brought her to America. Both had extraordinary film careers in the 1940s, generally considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. Bergman was my personal choice among several candidates and I thought it a good idea to be my next target after Bogart. I mentioned the idea to Mr. Ryan, and, when he showed interest, Dr. James M. Wilson and I embarked on the project and signed the contract soon after we submitted a proposal.

AHM: Bergman had such a rich and distinguished career that I can’t imagine having to choose which features to include in a book. You mentioned that Rowman and Littlefield set certain guidelines for you. What exactly was the criteria or approach for choosing which films to highlight in this text?

CS: Choosing the films to include was indeed a challenge. The idea was to choose the best and most representative films of Bergman, the “essentials,” as the series was called. They were to be the best among Bergman’s long career, marked a by a key, ***** a classic, **** as good as a classic, and *** as good. Titles that received ** and * (given in the filmography section) were not chosen for inclusion. As it happens, we chose one of her Swedish productions, and the rest were the most prominent of her classic period in Hollywood. Classics included Bergman’s best movies that reflected her outstanding performance in a movie that was also outstanding in itself. Poor films even with an outstanding performance were not chosen. Most inclusions were from her Hollywood period (like Casablanca, Notorious, Gaslight, and several others), two were from the Rossellini period (including Stromboli), and only a few after Anastasia. [This was] mainly because her output in cinema declined in the following decades. We made certain, however, to include Murder on the Orient Express, which was a classic and gave her third Oscar. There is an element of subjectivity in selecting titles, but with three people involved (including the co-author and editor), we believe that the selections given in the book represent Bergman’s best work.

AHM: What qualities did Ingrid Bergman bring to her films that are unique to her?

CS: Her down-to-earthiness was a quality that gave her appeal. When [she] first came to Hollywood, Selznick proposed to alter her appearance, thinning her eyebrows, changing her hair color, fixing her teeth, etc., as was usually done by studios in that era. Bergman refused staunchly, thus retaining her natural looks, which endeared her to American audiences.

Bergman projected the image of a good woman who frequently appeared vulnerable and was often exposed to dangers (whether physical or psychological) by manipulative men who were usually older and socially or professionally superior (as in Intermezzo, Gaslight, and Anastasia). However, far from being naïve, she usually fought back [while] showing a keen intellect (as in Spellbound) and the ability to extricate herself from treacherous situations. She never played a villain or treacherous person, but she did sometimes portray a woman who suffered blows because of weakness or poor choices (Arch of Triumph or Stromboli). Though known for playing straight dramatic roles, Bergman displayed a talent for comedienne, as in Indiscreet and The Yellow Rolls-Royce. Bergman honed her skills constantly, from the start of her career in Sweden to her last role as Golda Meir (for which she posthumously received an Emmy). Bergman was not an imitator but always did things her own way. She commanded the screen with her presence like no one else.

AHM: Do you think that Bergman’s move to Hollywood transformed her acting in any way?

CS: Yes. In her Swedish films, aside from looking much younger (she looked younger than her age throughout her career), she was more realistic [since] films in Sweden had not attained the polish and glamor of Hollywood’s output. Her appearance and character were linked to her Swedish environment. People tried to make a living by leading simple lives and were surrounded by a near-polar environment with long nights and snow on the ground. Bergman’s mentor and director of several of her Swedish movies, Gustaf Molander, was consciously trying to present her on the screen as a woman of modest background (looking middle-class or lower). In the only film included in this book, En Kvinnas Ansikte (A Woman’s Face), she is not only low class but also a criminal that leads a gang which blackmails straying lovers. She also has an ugly scar on one side of her face, the result of a fire wound in her younger days.

David O. Selznick would not have allowed his Swedish import to look anything but beautiful. In Hollywood, beauty and glamor were institutions and actors and actresses had to undergo changes in their appearance, including hair color, eyebrows, lip design, teeth, not to mention accent and body movement. Bergman was tutored in English to learn the American idiom, while her appearance on the screen would change radically. In Hollywood, her Swedish plainness would be transformed into glamor. Though she would not allow Selznick to thin her eyebrows, Bergman was manipulated on a set to look glamorous, and one way to do that was to photograph her face from the left, which, some agreed, favored her profile. In Casablanca, this becomes evident, as one sees her face in profile from several angles, in numerous close-ups. Though retaining her individuality, Bergman became a glamorous movie star, being given proven male leads, and becoming world famous within a year or two after her arrival in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood image was soiled after her adventure with Rossellini, Bergman regained her glamor with Anastasia, after which she projected an international image, making movies in several languages, Italian, French, Swedish, and never quite becoming a Hollywood idol again. Her last movie, Autumn Sonata, made for her namesake, Ingmar Bergman, brought her back to her homeland (though it was actually filmed in Norway) and the cycle was completed. Bergman’s image of an international star came into being in the second part of her career, but she is mostly still remembered as a Hollywood mega-star.

Casablanca.jpg

Bergman was wonderful in Casablanca (1942) but that film is Bogart’s.” -Constantine Santas

AHM: What do you think Bergman took away from her experiences working with Alfred Hitchcock?

CS: Actresses who worked for Hitchcock said that they learned a great deal about acting from the Master of Suspense. He tutored them individually, on and off the set, supervising their movements, dress, accent, commandeering their performance in every film, while almost never praising a performance. With Bergman, Hitchcock developed a warm relationship from the start, guiding her adeptly through the three films she made for him. In Spellbound, she developed leadership qualities by adopting an unorthodox method of treating a patient, who was also her lover. Over the objections of several senior members of a psychiatric clinic, she undertakes to prove that he is not a suspected killer. Hitchcock shows her wearing glasses in her early scenes, suggesting that she was sexually repressed—a favorite Hitchcock gambit. As the plot progresses, the glasses are tossed off, while Constance Petersen takes the lead in investigating a crime against the advice of her seniors. In Notorious, Bergman was a dominant figure on the screen throughout the movie. Hitchcock taught her to be subtle in reaction shots, as for instance at the time she realizes that she is being poisoned by Madam Sebastian and Alex. Almost every possible shot was used to photographing her in several mental states—which is actually his strategy in the film. Bergman was a mature actress when she started working for Hitchcock; it shows on the screen. But her work for the Master gave her an extra sheen and cinematic stature that she retained for the rest of her career.

Production Photograph from the set of NOTORIOUS.

Bergman’s portrayal of Alicia Huberman is one of her best performances. This production photograph from the set of Notorious (1946) shows the actress enjoying a ‘behind the scenes’ moment with both Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock.

AHM: Not only is NOTORIOUS my favorite Ingrid Bergman film, but it also happens to be one of my five favorite Hitchcock films. I actually believe that it is superior to CASABLANCA (which is admittedly an incredible film) because it has so many layers of subtext to appreciate. I enjoy the relationship politics involved between Alicia and Devlin and their testing of one another—a test they both fail miserably. There is always more to see with each viewing. On top of all of this, Bergman is simply incredible! It’s really her show.

CS: I could have written these exact words. Yes, Bergman was wonderful in Casablanca, but that film is Bogart’s. He has much more screen time than she has, and he is the character that makes the major decisions. In Notorious, Bergman is center stage from beginning to end. Dejected after her father’s trial (and a bit later his death), she takes refuge in carousal and goes driving with an unknown man who happens to be at her party. When she is asked to collaborate with American Intelligence, she accepts and embarks on a dangerous mission that nearly costs her life. She handles everything “with great intelligence,” as Prescott tells her. Alicia Huberman is a heroine in the best sense of the word. She takes on the challenge to be another “Mata Hari” and, despite a heartache caused by her lover Devlin (Grant), she delivers the goods. Hitchcock makes sure the viewer understands her plight by having his camera following her in close-ups, the famous crane shot where the key to the cellar is shown in her hand, and many sequences where her actions, as well as her state of mind, are clearly communicated to the viewer. The love story cannot be ignored here either: the man she loves, stung by his conscience and realizing her plight comes to her rescue, just in time. Casablanca is a story of at least half a dozen people, put together with superior artistry. Notorious is following a single narrative line and the center of that line is Bergman.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Bergman film?

CS: For me, Notorious is Bergman’s best film and the reasons for that are explained in the paragraph above. I will add that a close second is Gaslight, for which Bergman received her first Oscar. This is an extraordinary performance in which Bergman is playing a woman losing her mind, subjected to mental torment by a designing villain-husband. In the last scene, when Sergis Bauer (Boyer) is tied, Bergman as Paula Anton delivers a caustic speech in which she explodes with feelings that were held back. She pours out her soul, it seems, providing a balm (catharsis) to the audience, thirsting for her to take revenge.

AHM: Is there a least favorite?

CS: That for me would be Arch of Triumph. It was made by Enterprise—United Artists, a company aiming to make movies with artistic ambitions. The company did not survive the failure of this film. In it Bergman plays Joan Madou, a European woman of undermined background, taking lovers, rather than pursuing a career (possible that of the singer since Madou could sing). The film was poorly edited and the plot seems murky at times. The reason for including it is that, despite its shortcomings, the film still manages to convey the plight of Russian and other refugees at the brink of the Second World War. Besides, the film features strong characters, Charles Laughton as a sadistic Nazi, Charles Boyer as a displaced doctor, and Louis Calhern (remembered from Notorious) playing an expatriate Russian who shelters and helps other displaced persons. Even as a “bad” character, Bergman gives a notable performance as an aimless, displaced woman who suffers the consequences of her ill-judged actions.

The wayward Joan Madou in 'Arch of Triumph'

Ingrid Bergman portrayed the wayward Joan Madou in Arch of Triumph (1948).

AHM: It’s impossible to discuss Ingrid Bergman’s career without at least touching on her relationship with Roberto Rossellini, but instead of the resulting scandal, I prefer to discuss their work together. How do you think their distinctive styles changed the other’s work?

CS: Bergman’s collaboration with Rossellini demanded special work and a special study of the Italian Neo-realistic movement. It was her torrential affair with Rossellini that caught the attention of her fans and obscured the relationship of the two in purely cinematic terms. One thing that should be noted is the vast differences between the movie-making styles and methods of Hollywood and the Italian neo-realists—especially Rossellini. Generally, in Hollywood, preparations for filming demand a considerable amount of time spent on the writing of a script, [the building of] sets, costume design, art direction, musical scoring, the casting of professional actors, and etc.

When Bergman arrived in Stromboli, she saw a volcanic island spuming lava and a few inhabitants eking out a living as fishermen while living under the constant threat of an eruption (which actually happened during filming). What astonished Bergman more than anything else was Rossellini’s unorthodox style of film-making. He had no script—only an idea of a displaced woman he had met earlier in a refugee camp—and it seems that the story evolved as filming progressed. Instead of sets, Rossellini shot scenes on the village streets of Stromboli, the sea-shore, and on the mountainsides. There were no doubles, so Bergman had to do all the running up and down the slopes. And basically, all the actors were untrained uncomprehending villagers who had no idea what was going on, and moved on cue, as Rossellini attached strings to their toes when he wanted them to move in one direction or another.

At first, Bergman was appalled, tossing out a complaint: “Is this realistic filmmaking?” Gradually, however, she complied with Rossellini’s methods as their love affair intensified. To her, Rossellini was a genius and she came under his spell with considerable enthusiasm and eventually she went along with his projects, which included four more films and an oratorio. As a consequence, her Hollywood persona was demolished, and she played women in failed marriages, either because of the conditions of the environment (as in Stromboli), or social class (as in Europe 51), which describes her as attaining sainthood, leaving her husband and his high class, and ending up as an inmate in a psychiatric asylum. Bergman’s talents were so capacious that she could adjust and adapt to Rossellini’s demands, and she rose to the occasion, making three films (Stromboli, Europe 51, Journey to Italy) playing failed women in which Rossellini describes the wreckages of the war, the emptiness of soul in the upper classes in Italy and Europe, and a marriage that goes through the motions—themes that were developed by his contemporaries, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini among others.

During the Rossellini episode, Bergman lost her good reputation in America, but her artistic abilities expanded as she became a more mature and skilled actress. This was due to her unparalleled professionalism which demanded excellence at any level of filmmaking. Rossellini himself explored Bergman’s talents to the limit and most of his films with her stood the test of time, although one cannot say that they have become more popular. In the end, setting aside the dimensions of a scandal that rocked Bergman’s career, both Rossellini and Bergman profited from working together, and their work merits further study.

AHM: Which Rossellini/Bergman collaboration is the strongest, and why do you think it shines above the others?

CS: Unquestionably, the strongest Rossellini/Bergman collaboration is Stromboli. The film shines in its objectivity in describing conditions in a God-forsaken place as realistically as was ever done in film. Despite the primitive conditions of filmmaking, Rossellini knew what he was doing and combined narrative and documentary style (the tuna fishing episode) while creating a story compelling enough to be watched with interest today. As for Bergman, the plainness of the environment favors her appearance, as she is more beautiful than ever (sitting on a rock, her hair, with a silver streak in it, blowing in the Mediterranean breezes). The Criterion Blu-ray of Stromboli is worth watching, as it reveals the uniqueness of this film in the Bergman canon.

Bergman Stromboli

Stromboli (1950) might be the best Rossellini/Bergman collaboration.

AHM: Do you think that her work with Rossellini in Italy had any influence on her later work?

CS: In films that followed, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Goodbye Again, The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Murder on the Orient Express, Bergman appears to have gained additional skills, playing mostly European women with an expanded range—a leader in the mountains of China, an American rich woman who fights for a cause against the Nazis, or a woman who a adjusts to a failed marriage—these are signs of maturity that may be attributed to her relationship to Rossellini. It is to be noted, however, that Bergman did not actually make a film in Hollywood until Cactus Flower in 1969. Her Hollywood career had essentially ended after her affair with Rossellini, but her performances were always good and at times superb, as Bergman always sought to try her best in every film she made. Rossellini had left his marks on her which can be traced in the rest of her career.

Interview by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Under Capricorn

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: June 19, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:57:14

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.93 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously given a bare bones DVD release.

Title

Under Capricorn was made for Ingrid Bergman… but if I’d been thinking clearly, I’d never have tackled a costume picture. You’ll notice I’ve never done any since that time. Besides, there wasn’t enough humor in the film. If I were to make another picture in Australia today, I’d have a policeman hop into the pocket of a kangaroo and yell, ‘Follow that car!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Many scholars have pontificated as to why Hitchcock chose to adapt Helen Simpson’s Under Capricorn as what was originally intended to be the première Transatlantic Films production. The major studios had all wisely passed on optioning the property. In fact, they had also passed on the other properties purchased by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock for Transatlantic. Under Capricorn, Rope, Stage Fright, and I Confess were all considered inappropriate material in which to build a suitable film script. Few if any of these historians seem to have given any consideration to the possibility that these “passed over” properties may have been the only ones that the budding production company could afford. It is doubtful that they would be able to outbid the major studios on more promising subjects (although Rope and I Confess are both incredibly underrated). This is only conjecture but it seems a reasonable possibility and one wishes that this avenue could be explored in more depth.

Alfred Hitchcock always claimed that he chose the property because he felt that Ingrid Bergman would respond to the material and that he was so absorbed with signing the actress to a film that this became his only consideration.

“I had no special admiration for the novel, and I don’t think I would have made the picture if it hadn’t been for Ingrid Bergman. At that time, she was the biggest star in America and all the American producers were competing for her services, and I must admit that I made the mistake of thinking that to get Bergman would be a tremendous feat; it was a victory over the rest of the industry, you see. That was bad thinking, and my behavior was almost infantile. Because even if the presence of Bergman represented a commercial asset, it made the whole thing so costly that there was no point to it. Had I examined the whole thing more carefully from the commercial angle, I would not have spent two and a half million dollars on the picture. At the time, that was a lot of money, you see… Anyway, I looked upon Bergman as a feather in my cap. We were making it with our own production company, and all I could think about was, ‘Here I am, Hitchcock, the onetime English director, returning to London with the biggest star of the day.’ I was literally intoxicated by the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This makes sense when one considers that the director was enjoying his first taste of freedom after being emancipated from the shackles of his contract with David O. Selznick. It was more important for the director to distinguish himself as a producer than to satisfy his own creative interests (at least when it came to his material). Under Capricorn was to be a star vehicle to rival those that Selznick was so fond of producing, and the fact that Bergman had already refused to sign another contract with Selznick would have made this victory even sweeter.

Ingrid Bergman in a Publicity Still for 'Under Capricorn'

Publicity Still of Ingrid Bergman: “The film was done more or less for the benefit of Ingrid Bergman. That was a case of trying to find a subject to suit the star, which I don’t believe in. So, it was really a compromise…” –Alfred Hitchcock (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

 WRITING THE SCRIPT

Unfortunately, Selznick had been able to procure prestigious properties and Hitchcock was stuck with a rather tedious novel that borrowed heavily from much better pieces of literature. Hitchcock’s film is thankfully much different than the convoluted mess that Simpson originally concocted. Her story is divided into three sections, and Hitchcock’s film only follows the first of these before providing a more coherent denouement. His final act has been criticized for being rather weak, but it must be said that reading the original novel gives one new respect for Hitchcock’s conclusion.

As mentioned, the film follows the first section of Simpson’s text rather faithfully, but the stories diverge at the Governor’s ball (which is a St. Patrick’s Day dance in the novel). This dance begins the second section of Smith’s novel, and it is at this point when her story becomes much more convoluted and tangential. Constantine Verevis gives a more detailed comparison between the film and the novel in an essay entitled, “Under a Distemperate Star” (although she takes a more appreciative view of the original novel than it really deserves). Her account of the rest of the book is a concise and more enjoyable way of comparing these two very different stories than actually having to read the book:

“The beginning of [section] two takes up the story—some three months after Adare’s arrival—on the occasion of the St. Patrick’s Day dance, the event Adare chooses to present the restored Lady Henrietta to social life… The Irish dance becomes the point of Hitchcock’s departure, setting up Henrietta’s emergence at the ball (as Adare’s first artistic creation) as the occasion of Flusky’s public reclamation of his wife. This event provokes—in the celebrated 9.5 minute sequence shot—Henrietta’s confession to Adare that it was she (not Flusky) who killed Dermont [James in the novel] in self-defense and sets up a number of confrontations that lead ultimately to the restoration of the married couple, Flusky and Henrietta. In order to effect this, Hitchcock excises from the novel Adare’s encounter at the dance with a young working-class woman much nearer his age—the locally born Susan Quaife—to whom he takes an immediate liking…

…Adare proceeds to court Susan, visiting her at her father’s barbershop on George Street. Around the same time, Adare enlists the help of ‘Ketch,’ the aboriginal leader introduced (none too sympathetically) following Adare’s first dinner with Flusky, to embark upon a treacherous journey north to Port Macquarie and then inland to unknown territory in search of gold. Milly has spread vile rumors that Adare and Henrietta are lovers, and Flusky (mildly suspicious of Adare) is quick to agree to fund the expedition. Convinced that Flusky has effectively delivered Adare (in repetition of her brother’s fate) to his death, Henrietta becomes despondent and turns to drink.

[Section] three thus begins with Henrietta again fighting her demons. Five months have passed with no word of Adare. Milly returns to assume control of the household, and this time it is Winter, the gentleman servant, who challenges Milly’s authority. Winter is soon expelled (given his ticket back to convict prison), but before leaving he passes to Henrietta a message left by Adare prior to his departure. The letter asks Henrietta to look up Susan Quaife, and upon doing so she invites Susan for an extended stay at the Flusky mansion, where Henrietta proceeds to groom the illiterate colonial girl in manner and appearance. Around the same time, Flusky is told that Adare has been found close to death but that he is recovering and is expected back in Sidney in December. After some weeks, Adare returns, declaring his love for Susan and [his] desire to stay and work honestly in the colony. This along with Susan’s exposure of Milly’s attempt to usurp Henrietta’s place, conclusively disrupts the romantic triangles and paves the way for a restored relationship between Henrietta and Flusky…

…Simpson does this by substituting the character of Susan Quaife for that of Charles Adare, whose search for gold happens entirely off-stage. Upon relocating to Minyago Yugilla, Susan not only proves herself an able match for the wily Milly, but also comes to function as a surrogate daughter to the childless Henrietta. Adare returns from the expedition matured by his experience on the land… [And] at this point, [he] asks for Susan’s hand in marriage and declares his dedication to the new continent. Simpson sets up the working-class Susan and the nobleman Adare as a parallel (cross-class) couple to Henrietta and Flusky, the latter stating (in anticipation of the young folks’ union), ‘It would be like us, only t’other way round,’ to which Henrietta replies: ‘With a better chance. Better hope. Both free.’” –Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Although, it goes without saying that Under Capricorn isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s best work, it is impossible not to admire how he transformed this convoluted mess into something that resembles a reasonably coherent narrative—although he may have been aided by an earlier dramatization (most likely written for the stage but never produced) by John Colton and Margaret Linden. Their play had also seen fit to jettison some of the book’s later subplots but also confined the action to the Flusky mansion. Having never seen or read this adaptation, it is best not to make any assumptions as to any similarities between it and the film version.

In any case, one completely loses interest after the first section of Simpson’s meandering novel, but Hitchcock and his writers were able to trade this nonsense for a resolution that examines some of Hitchcock’s pet themes regarding an innocent carrying the burden of a wrong that isn’t their own. It comes as no surprise that the French critics loved it! Unfortunately, the film’s pacing is constricted by the kind of long monologues that plague so many of the era’s costume dramas. The director was never able to find an appropriate writer and settled on inappropriate collaborators.

“My second mistake was to ask my friend Hume Cronyn to do the script with me; I wanted him because he’s a very articulate man who knows how to voice his ideas. But as a scriptwriter, he hadn’t really sufficient experience. Still another error was calling on James Bridie to help with the scenario. He was a semi-intellectual playwright and not in my opinion a very thorough craftsman. On thinking it over later on, I realized that he always had very good first and second acts, but he never succeeded in ending his plays. I still remember one of our working sessions on the script. The man and wife had separated after a series of terrible quarrels, and I asked Bridie, ‘How are we going to bring them together again?’ He said, ‘Oh, let them just apologize to each other and say, ‘I’m sorry, it was all a mistake.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hume Cronyn cited Hitchcock’s obsession with the film’s visual design as the source of the weaknesses inherent in the script:

“…I learned a lot from him and I have enormous admiration for him. He put together Under Capricorn image by image, and with all due respect, I think this method sometimes led him astray. He became so fascinated by these images that sometimes the direct line of the narrative would get lost or be bent, or there would be an awkwardness telling the story. He had of course been very revolutionary in the way he approached Rope, and it had been written to be shot in tremendously long takes. But when he came to his next film, it was to cover the vast panorama of colonial life in Australia. The difference in the quality of the two stories was the difference between a miniature and an enormous landscape. Yet, he decided to use the same approach, and I feel that was a mistake and got him into trouble.” –Hume Cronyn (as quoted in ‘The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,’ 1976)

This tendency to blame Hitchcock’s visual approach for the film’s failure is ridiculous, but there were certainly issues that should and could have been addressed and the director was well aware of them when the team was working on the script.

“In the year following Rope, Hitch asked me to do another treatment, this one based on Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn… I went to London with Hitch to work on Capricorn. We would meet for our story conferences at Sidney Bernstein’s offices in Golden Square. From the beginning, the work was fraught with problems. On one particular morning, with Hitch at the end of the table and Sidney and I on the either side of him, Hitch suddenly reared back in his chair, scowling like an angry baby, and announced, ‘This film is going to be a flop. I’m going to lunch.’ And he stalked out of the room, pouting. I was appalled; Sidney was immediately solicitous. ‘Now, Hume, don’t be upset. You know Hitch: he’ll have a good lunch, come back, and everything will be serene.’ It was true; I’d seen Hitch suffer these tantrums before. He never had them on the set; by the time we got there, the whole film was already shot in his head, down to every cut and camera angle… But during a film’s preparation, he could become very mercurial; his emotional thermometer would soar to over a hundred degrees in enthusiasm, only to plunge below freezing in despair. We were alike in that, and I should have been more philosophical about the morning’s upset. The trouble was that in this particular instance I had the awful, nagging suspicion that Hitch’s premonition was accurate.” -Hume Cronyn (his memoirs as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks,’ 1999)

Interestingly, the director originally tried to engage Bridie to write the script to Under Capricorn after finishing his work on The Paradine Case (a Selznick production that has its own script issues) and turned the project down.

“I don’t mind helping to turn The Paradine Case from a bad book into a good film, but it is another story when the book is a good book but based on a philosophy that means nothing to me. If you get the right script writer, Under Capricorn ought to be really memorable. But it is not up my street.” –James Bridie (as quoted in ‘Alfred Hitchcock: A Light in Darkness and Light,’ 2003)

How anyone could judge Simpson’s novel as anything better than mediocre is a mystery, but perhaps this isn’t important since he later relented and agreed to work on the project.

THE PRODUCTION

The script wasn’t the only aspect of the film’s production that gave Hitchcock headaches and the director felt that the film’s casting compromised the film’s verisimilitude.

Under Capricorn was again the lady-and-groom story. Henrietta fell in love with the groom, and when Joseph Cotton was shipped to Australia as a convict, she followed him there. The main element is that she degraded herself for the sake of her love. Cotton wasn’t the right type; Burt Lancaster would have been better.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This statement about the inappropriateness of Joseph Cotton in the role of Flusky isn’t merely the lamentations of a disappointed filmmaker who suddenly becomes aware of something after the fact. During the film’s pre-production, Hitchcock actively sought Burt Lancaster, but the actor required too much money and had other obligations. The production couldn’t be pushed back, and Bergman’s salary had already taken a considerable chunk out of the budget. He would have to find someone else, and that someone ended up being Joseph Cotton.

Joseph Cotten VS. Burt Lancaster

Hitchcock had originally sought Burt Lancaster for the role of Sam Flusky as he believed Cotton too distinguished and charming to portray an ex-stable hand.

One can understand why audiences may have been unable to accept Cotton as an uneducated, manure smelling, brutish groom—but this isn’t such a problem for modern audiences. Frankly, Cotton’s portrayal frees the character from the sort of stereotypical trappings of such characters. Is it outside the realm of possibility that a poor stable-hand might also be intelligent and charming? In any case, this has never been one of the more troubling aspects of Under Capricorn. After all, it is rare to hear anyone complain about Ingrid Bergman’s accent as Lady Henrietta Flusky which isn’t convincingly Irish—a fact that wasn’t lost on the actress. Her inability to give her character a proper Irish brogue plagued Bergman throughout the film’s production and exacerbated an already stressful situation.

Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed a warm friendship that lasted their entire lives, but the production of Under Capricorn put a strain on their relationship. Bergman blamed the contention on various stresses created by the director’s long mobile takes, an approach he carried over from Rope. A series of letters to Ruth Roberts gives one an intimate glimpse into the troubled production. The first and lengthiest of these letters is dated August 06, 1948:

“…Oh dear! This is my seventh week waiting. [Under Capricorn] started O.K. [on] the 19th, but with Hitch’s ten-minute takes they were behind one week after one day’s shooting. The technicians here have very little or no experience—and they don’t seem to care. I have been waiting and waiting, but every day it is the same: ‘We didn’t get the shot today, but for sure we’ll have it tomorrow morning.’ Finally after four days I was told [that] Hitch had abandoned the shot and would start with my entrance. I was so happy. [We] rehearsed and at two o’clock the same day had the first take. During the second take all the lights went out, the electricians walked down the ladders and left. Strike! All afternoon we waited for them to finish their meeting, but they never came back. This morning I was up at six; at nine I was told they had not come back yet: ‘Just relax in your dressing room!’ I am outraged but the others seem to take it relaxed. Nothing new. After the war they always have a couple of strikes. The reason for the strike was that two men were fired because of bad work and coming late to work several times.

Hitch is trying to find an entirely new electricians’ crew. Until then, we’ll have no peace. This is their second walkout. The camera crew and sound crew are nice, but it is a hostile feeling on the set that just kills you. People hardly look or speak to you. When I had the first test, the crew were whistling and making funny remarks. I was stunned because you know how very good people have always been. Don’t think everybody is bad but you know if it is just a few they color the whole set. The script is interesting now [and] we’ve got a pretty good end but Hitch’s new technique I don’t like. I have had no experience with it yet, for my first entrance was just a normal shot. But I have watched him with the others. It is so frightening for actors and crew. If the least bit goes wrong, you know … I think Hitch and I will have some arguments. He wanted to shoot a whole roll of film, the camera following me everywhere and the sets and furniture being pulled away. It meant we had to rehearse a whole day without shooting and then shoot the scenes the following day. It made everybody nervous but he insisted. We already had one little argument about my entrance and I got my way. I know I always can with him, but I dislike the argument… To top the rest of the mishaps I have a slow hairdresser. I have to be here at seven thirty. Makeup is very fast—hardly any—and very grey: no lipstick, no ice-towels, and the rest of Jack Pierce’s fun. All the time is for hair, so already at nine a.m. I am sore, not only my behind… Look what a long letter the strike will give you. It is now eleven thirty. No move in any direction…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

The long takes that she mentions in this letter did create a few problems—some of which were not an issue during the production of Rope. However, any objective analysis of these troubles will reveal that most were beyond Alfred Hitchcock’s control. Could he be blamed for the various strikes that halted production (or the time lost when Michael Wilding took ill with pleurisy)? Absolutely not.

In any case, the problems that were actually created by the long takes took a lot of ingenuity to solve. Jack Cardiff would often discuss his work on the film, and his memories weren’t happy ones.

“I had been much more involved than usual in the production planning. Usually, I tried to dream up ideas for dramatic lighting, but on Capricorn, I had for the most part to work out how on earth I could possibly light so many sets at once! I worked more closely with the director than usual… Practically all of Hitchcock’s dramatic ideas were visual. If a cameraman is supposed to ‘paint with light,’ Hitchcock painted with a moving camera…

…We would rehearse one whole day and shoot the next day. Good recorded sound was impossible: the noise was indescribable. The electric crane lumbered through sets like a tank at Sebastopol, whole walls cracked open, furniture was whisked away by panting prop men and then frantically replaced in position as the crane made a return trip. The sound department did exceptionally well just to get a ‘guide track.’ … When we had made a successful ten minute take, everyone had to leave the studio except the sound people, Hitch, the script girl, and the cast, who would then go through the motions with dialogue without the camera. Amazingly, by sliding the sound tape backward and forward, it all came together.” –Jack Cardiff (as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks.’ 1999)

This strategy took the cooperation and agility of everyone on the set and this included the actors.

“…Required to light as many as six sets for a single take, English cinematographer Jack Cardiff attached lights to cranes, dollies, boom mikes and even crew members to make them mobile enough to light a shot and then get out of the way of the cumbersome crane as it followed the actors to another part of the set. ‘It was a fantastic sight,’ he wrote in an article for American Cinematographer, ‘to see a lamp silently glide in through a window, or even in through a hole in the wall, twist and tilt and pan in several directions, then just as mysteriously disappear again.’

…The Regency table that production designer Tom Morrahan built for Under Capricorn [were] cut into fourteen sections. It came apart to permit the camera to pass through. ‘The actors often helped,’ Cardiff writes, ‘and as the camera approached them seated nonchalantly enough, it looked positively weird to see them suddenly grab a section of the table, with a candle or plate of food fixed on it, and fall wildly out of picture … with their own parts of the table clutched in their hands.’ Mattresses were placed strategically behind the actors to catch them when they toppled backwards.

A bed was made for Ingrid Bergman that could be made to tilt up at a 45-degree angle, permitting the camera to shoot ‘down’ at the actress. Despite the contortions this setup imposed, Bergman succeeded in conveying so many conflicting emotions in one shot where, lying in bed, she realizes she is being systematically driven mad by a jealous servant, that Eric Rohmer wrote he would give all of Stromboli (1950), her first film with Roberto Rossellini, for that shot, if cinema were ‘only’ the art of plumbing the depths of the human soul.” –Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Needless to say, this kind of chaos can be a great handicap for actors trying to lose themselves in their role, and this eventually all became too much for Bergman and led to an infamous outburst which was discussed intimately in another letter written to Ruth Roberts towards the end of August, 1948:

Under Capricorn is half finished. The other day I burst. The camera was supposed to follow me around for eleven whole minutes—which meant we had to rehearse a whole day with the walls or furniture falling backwards as the camera went through—and of course that couldn’t be done fast enough. So I told Hitch off. How I hate this new technique of his. How I suffer and loathe every moment on the set. My two leading men, Michael Wilding and Joe Cotton, just sat there and said nothing—but I know they agree with me—and I said enough for the whole cast. Little Hitch just left. Never said a word. Just went home… oh dear…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Years later, Hitchcock himself remembered this exchange in his famous interview with François Truffaut:

“Ingrid Bergman got angry with me because of those long shots. And, since I never lose my temper and I hate arguments, I walked out of the room while her back was turned to me. I went home, and later on someone called to inform me that she hadn’t noticed my departure and was still complaining twenty minutes after I’d gone.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

She would try again while having drinks with the director and her two male leads. Somehow the conversation shifted to the long takes and she began complaining about the approach once again. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of turning away and he took this opportunity to leave her company. “That’s the trouble with Hitch,” the actress lamented, “he won’t fight!” This was true. Hitchcock loathed conflict and felt that drama should be reserved for the screen.

Even so, it should be made clear that Hitchcock didn’t always ignore Bergman’s protests. When it was possible, he preferred to placate her by offering some sort of compromise that would allow him to have his way while seeming to bend to her will.

“…They were shooting a drunk scene on the stairs and Bergman could not, or would not keep her marks. ‘Why should she anyway?’ she asked. She was supposed to be drunk. Couldn’t they just let her act the scene the way she felt it and follow her? This time, Hitch decided on a little demonstration, so he agreed to shoot the scene her way if she would play it his, and leave the decision of which version to use up to her. Once she saw the rushes of their respective versions she was in no doubt that Hitch’s was better and generously admitted as much.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, none of this had a lasting effect on their friendship, and Bergman would even admit that his approach had merit after seeing some of the footage. This admission first appeared in a follow-up letter:

“The picture is nearly finished. Some of those damned long scenes work out very well. In one nine-and-a-half-minute take, I talked all the time; the camera never left me and it worked fine. I must say much better than being cut up and edited.” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

This same sentiment would be repeated publicly in an essay written for the Toledo Blade that was published on August 27, 1949:

“…I know I put myself completely in [Hitchcock’s] hands. In the making of that picture Hitch was the boss—and, within the four walls of the sound stage, his word was law… Merely acting for ten minutes at a stretch is no problem to anyone with stage training, but doing a ten-minute tense emotional scene without a break for the screen is a different matter. Your positions and your movements must be correct to the fraction of an inch for camera focus. Walls and doors are constantly disappearing to make way for the camera as you move from room to room, Property men are crawling under foot removing obstacles in your path. And a Technicolor camera on a 30-foot crane is constantly pursuing you, coming in swiftly for a close-up and then sweeping away—all these make demands upon an actress that go far beyond the realms of mere acting. But a lot of people do exhausting work and are happy to do it because the results are gratifying. And that’s how it is with me. I have seen Under Capricorn and I know the experiment, if you care to call it that, has succeeded. Hitch sees, and commits to paper, every movement of the cast and camera six months before hand. He has the whole production in mind, from beginning to end, on the day the camera starts turning. And it is not only a general idea; it is the detailed development, with every camera angle and every movement, worked out to the last quarter.” –Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in Under Capricorn,’ Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Joseph Cotton was more worried about weaknesses within the script and his dialogue. As a matter of fact, he referred to the project as “Under Crapricorn” or “Under Cornycrap” (depending on which version of the story you want to believe) within earshot of his director and James Bridie (who had come to the set to adjust some of Cotton’s dialogue). Of course, it is quite possible that this comment was born out of his insecurities as an actor (he was never able to handle an authentic Irish lilt) and personal issues that were not at all related to the production as he was going through quite a lot in his personal life. The lengthy takes only exacerbated these simmering issues.

The director himself may have privately cursed his sequence shots after having his toe crushed by the camera and the crane that held it. Perhaps this was a negative omen.

Alfred Hitchcock and the mamoth camera during the production of 'Under Capricorn.'

Alfred Hitchcock and the mammoth Technicolor camera used for the production of ‘Under Capricorn.’

RELEASE, RECEPTION, & LEGACY

Under Capricorn became the first British feature to have a world première at Radio City Music Hall on September 08, 1949 and had already accumulated $1,875,000 by this time on account of its world distribution rights. On September 17th, The Gloucestershire Echo reported that the film had already accumulated $2,000,000 but is unclear as to whether this amount includes the amount earned by selling these territorial rights (it is likely that it does). Either way, it seems that the film’s New York engagements were reasonably successful as the film played to “capacity audiences” for four weeks if newspaper reports can be believed. One assumes that the film was given a substantial boost due to the names of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton in the first week or two of release only to fall off in the following weeks. Whatever the case, Under Capricorn didn’t do enough business and was eventually repossessed by the bank that financed the project.

In The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Ken Mogg proposes that Ingrid Bergman’s presence in the film may have contributed to its eventual failure.

“…Then another setback occurred. The previous year, when Under Capricorn was being shot in England, Bergman had flown to Paris with her husband Petter Lindstrom to meet the Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. The meeting lasted two hours. There and then, Bergman agreed to appear in Rossellini’s next film, and joined him in Stromboli just before Under Capricorn was released. In fact, it was also a rendezvous of another kind. News of their affair and the scandal it caused spread quickly. Catholic organizations in America reacted by banning the Hitchcock film, and many cinema owners were sufficiently outraged to follow suit. Hitchcock blamed Rossellini for what had happened and always remained bitter towards him…” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

This may have some merit. However, it seems likely that the film had probably already failed by this point (at least in America). It was March 14, 1950 when—at the height of the scandal—Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced the actress on the floor of the Senate calling her a “powerful influence for evil” who had instigated a violent “assault on the institution of marriage.”

“Mr. President, now that the stupid film about a pregnant woman and a volcano has exploited America with the usual finesse, to the mutual delight of RKO and the debased Rossellini, are we merely to yawn wearily, greatly relieved that this hideous thing is finished and then forget it? I hope not. A way must be found to protect the people in the future against that sort of gyp!” –Edwin C. Johnson

Of course, the senator had an agenda as he was proposing a censorship bill based on the “moral compasses” of those who work on any particular film. Such a bill sounds like an excuse to take away the inalienable rights of those who do not think or believe the same as Mr. Johnson and others like him, but this neither here nor there. The point is that this was months after the film’s initial release and it is doubtful that it had any effect on the film’s box-office earnings. It may have been a factor in the bank’s decision to repossess the picture but this is merely conjecture.

Critics and audiences tend to excoriate films that don’t meet their expectations and have difficulty judging them on their own merits, so Under Capricorn never really stood much of a chance. Alfred Hitchcock often made mention of this in his interviews.

“[The French critics admired Under Capricorn] because they looked at it for what it was and not what people expected. Here you get a Hitchcock picture which is a costume-picture and not approached from a thriller or excitement point of view until towards the end. I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, ‘We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.’ They went in expecting something and didn’t get it. That was the main fault with that picture… Also I used a fluid camera—mistakenly perhaps because it intensified the fact that it wasn’t a thriller—it flowed too easily.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This is probably a reference to William Brogdon’s awkwardly composed review for Variety:

Under Capricorn is fortunate in having a number of exploitable angles that can be used to parlay sturdy initial grosses. On the long pull, though, box-office will be spotty. Ingrid Bergman’s name will be a potent help and there are Technicolor, Joseph Cotton, and Alfred Hitchcock as added lures to get ticket sales going, even though it doesn’t appear likely [that] momentum will be maintained in the general market.

It is overlong and talky, with scant measure of the Hitchcock thriller tricks that could have sharpened general reception. A moody melodrama, full of long speeches and obvious movement, it uses up one hour and fifty-six minutes in developing a story that would have had more impact had not Hitchcock dwelt so tediously on expanded single scenes. He gives it some air of expectancy, but this flavor eventually becomes buried in the slow resolution of tangled human relationships into a happy ending… Miss Bergman’s scenes have their own particular brand of thespian magic. On their own, they glow, but when combined with the other lengthy sequences, the effect is dulled…

…In an opening sequence, Hitchcock plants the fact that Australian aborigines shrink the heads of their victims. One hundred minutes later he uses a mummified head as the single shocker in the footage. It will cause a round of horrified gasps. In between, he is just as obvious in the development, resulting in a regrettable lack of the anticipated Hitchcock subtleties… Margaret Leighton does the housekeeper, an unrelieved heavy so obvious that the other characters should have seen through her…

…Photography is another example of Hitchcock’s bent for an extremely mobile camera, playing long scenes in one take, but the moving camera is not a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper story-telling…” –William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Other critics shared Brogdon’s opinion and echoed his sentiments, and British critics followed suit. This review in The Times sums up the majority opinion:

“Miss Ingrid Bergman, Mr. Joseph Cotten, Mr. Michael Wilding, Miss Margaret Leighton, and, as director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock — there is clearly a team here, if not of all the talents, at least of a considerable number of them; and the question is, are they going to play well together? The answer, in the end, must regretfully be that they do not… and only occasionally is Mr. Hitchcock’s cunning and dramatic hand visible in the direction. The colour, especially while the camera is indoors, is admirable, but Under Capricorn lasts far too long and has far too many loose ends.” –The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, October 05, 1949)

Many critics enjoyed the film but qualified their praise by pointing out that the material wasn’t up to the director’s usual standards. Usually, these reviews credited Hitchcock and his all-star troupe of actors for elevating the material. This review published in Harrison’s Reports is a case in point:

“Lavishly produced and photographed in Technicolor, this period melodrama with psychological overtones is an impressive entertainment of its kind. The story… is not unusual, nor are the characters, with the exception of the heroine, particularly sympathetic. Yet the acting of the entire cast is so competent that one’s interest is held well. Ingrid Bergman, as the wretched dipsomaniac who is victimized by a murderous housekeeper in love with her husband, comes through with another striking performance. The story is not without its weak points, particularly in that much of the footage is given more to talk than to movement, but Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial skill manages to overcome most of the script’s deficiencies by building up situations that thrill and hold the spectator in tense suspense…” –Harrison’s Reports (September 10, 1949)

Helen Williams wrote a similarly positive review for the Yorkshire Post:

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock has exploited to the full the dramatic possibilities of Under Capricorn, Helen Simpson’s romantic story of Australia in 1831… He is ably supported by a brilliant cast… The probabilities in this melodramatic tale may not bear analysis, but the excellence of the acting and Alfred Hitchcock’s direction carry the film to a triumphant close…” –Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Of course, the French critics were enamored with the film and would eventually vote Under Capricorn into a list of the ten greatest films ever made in Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s hardly one of the ten greatest films ever made. Frankly, it isn’t even one of the ten greatest films in Hitchcock’s filmography. Unlike Vertigo, few Hitchcock scholars try to elevate the film’s reputation in the public consciousness. Books covering the director’s filmography tend to see it as a forgettable blemish on the face of the director’s career, and this is actually a pretty fair assertion. Unfortunately, the scholars making these assertions don’t seem to have any real understanding as to why the film doesn’t measure up to his greatest work.

A perfect example of this appears in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock:

“…The impressive long takes that sometimes move from floor to floor, through lengthy corridors, and several rooms make this a sporadically beautiful movie, but the obsession for this technique also inspired lengthy monologues and dialogues that became perilously arid. Too often motionless, the camera seems indifferent, as if actors had to keep talking until the film ran out… This results in very talky motion picture-making without a prevalent viewpoint. The conversation simply isn’t engaging or suspenseful, and the lack of cutting short-circuits tension and necessary visual narrative rhythm.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Spoto makes the mistake of assuming that the lengthy monologues were inserted to cater to the director’s lengthy takes, but they really only complicated them. If one will think back to The Paradine Case (which was also adapted by James Bridie and then given another polish by Selznick), they will recall that the film had a similar tendency of employing longwinded monologues and constant dialogue. This is a characteristic of Bridies writing. Unlike Rope, Hitchcock wasn’t trying to get through an entire roll of film without cutting. He simply employed this technique when it best suited the material.

Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky similarly complained in their book about the film’s excessive dialogue but do not blame the sequence shot for this weakness:

“If [Under Capricorn] proved anything, it was that Hitchcock was literally making ‘talkies.’ Ostensibly [it] is a costume epic with a suspenseful side story. It was Hitchcock in a terrain in which he did not belong… The plot of the film was as uninspiring as [the] nearly two hours of dialogue.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Patrick Humphries doesn’t elaborate on the film’s weaknesses, but he makes it clear that his opinion follows suit:

“At best Under Capricorn is an unholy cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca, with the three witches from Macbeth thrown into the kitchen for good measure. At its worst, it is a turgid historical potboiler.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stephen Whitty goes even further in his condemnation of the film:

“…The production design is cheap and unconvincing—the Flusky mansion a more-than-usually obvious matte painting, the waterfront and pier a cramped mock-up—and although Bergman is given a nice, dramatic entrance, there’s no standout sequence or memorable moment. It’s the sort of picture that Hitchcock always said he hated—pictures of people talking—and it marks the lowest point in a dull period of halfhearted efforts that stretched from The Paradine Case to Stage Fright.” –Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Surprisingly, Ken Mogg seemed to disagree in his analysis of the film and gives it his enthusiastic praise:

Under Capricorn is one of several Hitchcock films of the late 1940s and 1950s that pleased few people at the time, but now seem full of interest… The result is a moody, stylized film where people talk endlessly while their real points stay unspoken. A key line is given to Flusky, who complains about the unfeeling legal process, which goes ‘on and on and on.’ The line is significant because beyond all the legality—and the talk—lies hope of something else, a return to a lost paradise. Under Capricorn may be Hitchcock’s finest film to explore that theme… [It] is more than a key Hitchcock film: it is one of his most lovely pictures. Its fluid design suggests life itself, sometimes wasting, sometimes being savored.” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

The truth—as is often the case—lies somewhere between these two extremes. Some films are neither brilliant nor terrible, but Under Capricorn was certainly a failure in the mind of its director, and Hitchcock’s tendency to adopt the prevailing critical opinion of his films has poisoned objective reevaluation.

FINAL ANALYSIS

“I made Under Capricorn because I wanted to apply the concepts of Rope to a different sort of story to see what that would yield.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Obviously, many scholars seem to believe that the failure of Under Capricorn was due to the fact that Hitchcock insisted on carrying over the sequence shots he utilized in Rope, and these people aren’t thinking past the semi-formed opinions of other critics that plagued newspapers and magazines in 1948 when the film was released. The fact is that his approach to Under Capricorn is fundamentally different than the technique used in Rope, because: a.) This film wasn’t shot to look as if it was shot in real time, b.) Under Capricorn includes traditional cutting in conjunction with sequence shots while Rope consists only of sequence shots, and c.) it doesn’t make any effort to camouflage the film’s edits.

In short, the technique used in Capricorn is a refinement of the experiment that he used for Rope. He is searching for the proper equilibrium between two opposing techniques and some of the director’s future work proves that he found it (even if it wasn’t perfected in this particular film). Hitchcock realized that there were flaws in his approach to Rope and is testing the sequence shot as an added tool to use in conjunction with other techniques. One can see a difference in his aesthetic before he made the two Transatlantic films and those that he made after them. He grew from these experiments and never completely abandoned the sequence shot. He confessed that he still admired the technique in a 1955 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma and this won’t come as a surprise to those who truly pay attention to his later work.

“Certain people thought it was a mistake and that it wasn’t truly cinema. Yet it’s pure cinema because you must do the editing in your head in advance. Then the movement between the scenes is made continuous by the movement of the actors, not of the camera alone, but of the actors and the camera together. Thus the camera roams about while the actors change positions, and together they establish various framed compositions. In my opinion, it’s a purer cinema but not enough people agreed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

This is an important point that seems to be lost on most critics and scholars. Hitchcock incorporates a wide array of shots into these long takes. The wide master, the two shot, the close-up, the extreme close-up, and the insert shot are all utilized. It isn’t as if he were simply pointing the camera at the actors and allowing the scenes to play out as if this were a play. What’s more, his use of this technique adds power to a number of the film’s traditional edits.

Some of the cuts in Under Capricorn are dramatic solely because they happen to follow a sequence shot. Take, for example, Bergman’s introduction. We follow Adare as he meets other guests after arriving at the party, Flusky gives instructions to Milly regarding Mrs. Flusky (which makes the viewer curious about her), and the men finally sit down to enjoy a meal and say grace. Soon the guests notice something that is happening just outside the scope of the frame, and Flusky notices their attention and nervously begins turning his head to see what has captured their gaze. We then cut to Bergman’s bare feet as they move into the room and carry us back to Sam Flusky as she places her hand on his shoulders. Finally, we move to the intoxicated face of Ingrid Bergman. It’s quite the introduction.

Hitchcock never abandons his devotion to the visual in this experiment, he simply expands and adds to the language of the medium. If Under Capricorn fails, it is due to the weak script and an arguably less interesting subject. It does not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best films—or even his second-tier titles—but it was an essential phase in his artistic evolution. What’s more, it isn’t any worse than a number of other overwrought and syrupy costume melodramas being made at around that time. One wonders if the film wouldn’t have a different reputation if another director’s name were written on it.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino houses their Blu-ray in a standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that offers a choice of film related artwork.

Reverse Cover Artwork

The default art is taken from the film’s original American One Sheet while a more lurid foreign poster was used for the reverse as an alternative. The American one sheet is the superior choice.

Menu

In fact, Kino must agree with us on this point since it is this artwork that has been carried over for the disc’s static menu.

SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s 4K restoration transfer is a huge improvement over the previous DVD editions of the film, and the improvement isn’t merely due to the added resolution. However, it must be said that the final result is less that completely satisfying and will probably disappoint some collectors. This doesn’t seem to be the fault of the restoration or the transfer but is instead the unfortunate symptom of the ravages of time. Damage and debris is evident, but the most significant problem here stems from the various color elements in the Technicolor print which has resulted in slight haloing. Luckily, this never becomes distracting. In fact, most people won’t notice it and will instead pick up on the obvious improvement over earlier transfers in terms of both vibrancy and clarity. Motion is also greatly improved upon here (something especially important considering the mobile nature of the image). Best of all, we get quite a bit more information in the frame in this new transfer. This is likely the best this film is going to look on home video at this point.

SS03

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio is an admirable representation of the film’s original source elements. It doesn’t offer the dynamic sonic experience one expects from more recent films, but no one should really expect this. The film’s dialogue is well prioritized and clearly rendered and the music is given adequate room to breathe thanks to the high definition transfer. Fans should be pleased.

SS04

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger has provided commentaries for a wide variety of films in recent years. As editor-in-chief for Diabolique magazine, she has a reasonably deep well of general knowledge to aid her in this track—but those expecting any in-depth information will be somewhat disappointed. Some of her analysis is interesting enough to keep the listener engaged, but it isn’t an especially focused discussion about the film (which she insists is underrated). She has a tendency to overlook important points and there are a few questionable statements along the way. This is par for the course with third-party “scholarly commentaries.” It is nice that she has included some general information about the careers of various cast and crew, and this is really the best reason to give the track a listen.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon (Audio) – (12:23)

Absolutely essential is this excerpt from Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous interview with François Truffaut as it finds the director speaking candidly about Under Capricorn. Those who have already read the book won’t learn anything, but it is nice to hear the director discussing this often overlooked film. It is illustrated with a still photograph of the two filmmakers that was taken during the interview sessions in 1963.

A Cinema of Signs: Chabrol on Hitchcock – (26:42)

The disc’s best supplement is probably this half-hour program that finds Claude Chabrol discussing a variety of Hitchcock related topics, including Cahiers du Cinéma’s infamous Hitchcock issue that would help change critical opinion of Hitchcock’s work, the equally important book that he penned with Éric Rohmer (Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films), an analysis of a scene from Under Capricorn (which was taken from the text of this book), Truffaut’s book-length interview Hitchcock, and his own analysis of scenes from Marnie and Frenzy. Fans will find this material fascinating even if they find themselves in disagreement. It offers food for thought and is a welcome addition to Kino’s package.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)

While trailers for other Hitchcock titles are much more interesting and original than the rather standard approach used to market Under Capricorn, it is certainly nice to have the trailer for this film finally available on home video.

We are also given a number of other trailers, including one for Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), Bergman’s Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), Cotton’s A Portrait of Jennie (1948), and a remake of The Lodger (1944).

SS05

Final Words:

“If I seem doomed to make only one type of picture, the movie audience is responsible. People go to one of my films expecting a thriller, and they aren’t satisfied until the thrill turns up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

This quote frames our parting thoughts admirably. Those who expect a typical Hitchcockian suspense story are bound to be disappointed. Under Capricorn is probably one of the director’s five weakest American films but it certainly wasn’t a waste of his time. In fact, it was an extremely important step in Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes the best transfer of the film currently available on home video and a very nice supplemental package.

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet

Source Material:

Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in ‘Under Capricorn, Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Staff Writer (The Times, August 31, 1949)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 10, 1949)

William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, September 17, 1949)

Staff Writer (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, The Times, October 05, 1949)

Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Staff Writer (Amusements: Ingrid Bergman in Australian Romance, Western Morning News, February 14, 1950)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, February 28, 1950)

D.J. (Derby Daily Telegraph, March 14, 1950)

David Brady (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Bryan Forbes (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Michael Haley (The Alfred Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Book Interview: Hitchcock’s Heroines

Cover

Publisher: Insight Editions

Release Date: May 01, 2018

A Conversation with Caroline Young

From his early days as a director in the 1920s to his heyday as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock had a complicated and controversial relationship with his leading ladies. He supervised their hair, their makeup, their wardrobe, and pushed them to create his perfect vision onscreen. These women were often style icons in their own right, and the clothes that they wore imbued the films with contemporary glamor.

Quite a lot has been written over the past few decades regarding Alfred Hitchcock’s use of women in his films—some of it from a scholarly or theoretical standpoint and some of it from a sensationalized tabloid angle that only serves to muddy the waters of responsible scholarship. However, it must be said that this new Insight Editions release of Caroline Young’s Hitchcock’s Heroines doesn’t quite fall into either category. She chronicles six decades of glamorous style while exploring the fashion legacy of these amazing women and their experiences working with Hitchcock. It is informative without being pushy but still manages to have a point of view. What’s more, Young’s text is well researched and beautifully illustrated with studio pictures, film stills, and original drawings of the costume designs. Anyone with a fondness for attractive coffee table books should consider adding this volume to their collection.

Caroline Young is based in Edinburgh Scotland. Her love of film and fashion led to her writing Classic Hollywood Style, Style Tribes: The Fashion of Subcultures, and Tartan and Tweed. Young recently consented to this exclusive interview with Alfred Hitchcock Master, and we hope that you enjoy it as much as we did!

Alfred Hitchcock and Doris Day on Location

This photograph of Alfred Hitchcock and Doris day is one of the many gorgeous photographs contained within the pages of “Hitchcock’s Heroines.” It was taken during the production of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

AHM: When did you first become interested in Alfred Hitchcock’s work and what instigated the interest?

CY: I have been a Hitchcock fan since my early teens. I would read Empire magazine, which would often do lists of the best films ever made, and Hitchcock was frequently on the list. So I would rent as many videotapes as I could, and I think the first one I saw was Rear Window. I just loved the visuals and the way it felt like I was in this tenement in a sweltering summer in New York. I did film studies at university so my appreciation was further built, studying the shower scene and applying various film theories to his work.

AHM: Could you describe Hitchcock’s Heroines for our readers? What makes this book stand out amongst the others in your opinion?

CY: Hitchcock’s Heroines is the first book to visually explore the costumes and image of the women in Hitchcock’s films. It has great images and costume sketches, including one from Frenzy that has never been published, but it offers a lot more than this. I wanted to take a balanced approach to Hitchcock’s relationship to his leading ladies, weave in details on the making of the films, and celebrate these amazing actresses and their stories. I also researched and found further detail on the designers behind the different films, such as Adrian for Shadow of a Doubt, and how it was David O Selznick who shaped the character’s image in Rebecca and Spellbound.

AHM: What gave you the initial idea to write a book that centers on the heroines in Hitchcock’s canon and what were the biggest challenges in making it a reality?

CY: The idea came from my first book, ‘Classic Hollywood Style,’ which explore the story behind the costumes in classic movies. As a follow up I wanted to do another film costume book that focused entirely on Hitchcock, as I had only featured To Catch a Thief, but I had found out so much more information on the costumes in his films that I would’ve liked to have included. This was in 2012, and there was also a lot of interest in the relationship between Tippi and Hitchcock at this time, and his obsession over blondes, particularly on the release of The Girl. But rather than look at him through this misogynistic filter, I was interested in seeing how the women in his films were sympathetic and inspiring, how their image was constructed, and what the actresses thought of Hitchcock and how they got on with them.

The main challenge was the topic, as firstly, Hitchcock was considered controversial, and also that books on film fashion are not always considered popular. I was also conscious of being respectful to Tippi and that a balanced approach didn’t diminish what she was saying.

AHM: Do you have a favorite Hitchcock heroine? If so, who would that be and why is she your favorite?

CY: Difficult to choose, but I adore Nova Pilbeam as she’s really fresh and plucky in Young and Innocent (you wonder how did she learn skills from being in a boxer’s dressing room), but Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite. I like the character arc from self-destructive to showing complete guts in sacrificing herself for duty, the way the ‘female gaze’ is reversed in the party scene, and those Edith Head costumes which use stark black and white to make her stand out. Also, Ingrid Bergman does being drunk really well.

AHM: Now, the reverse of the last question: Which of Hitchcock’s leading ladies is your least favorite and why did she not appeal to you?

CY: Maureen O’Hara in Jamaica Inn, probably because the film doesn’t really feel like a Hitchcock work, and it doesn’t leave a memorable impression.

AHM: How did you decide upon which films and actresses to include in the book?

CY: It was a tough call as there was a limit to how much I could include—so I went for the most notable films in terms of visuals around the female character, along with ones I felt illustrated the journey. Nova Pilbeam is not that well known but had been an early protégée of Hitchcock’s, which is why I included Young and Innocent. I would have liked to have explored Vera Miles in The Wrong Man but her image is secondary in that film. However, that could have been interesting in itself.

Madeleine Carroll

Madeleine Carroll: Alfred Hitchcock’s “first glacial blonde prototype.”

AHM: How do you think his British films—and the heroines that feature in these films—differ from those he made as a Hollywood director? Did his heroines change once he moved to America? If so, what are these differences? What do you feel the reasons for this might be?

CY: The British period was when he was finding his own style, developing new techniques and narratives, and in the British period, apart from Anny Ondra, who he enjoyed working with, and Madeleine Carroll who was the first glacial blonde prototype, it wasn’t until Grace Kelly that he found his muse. There are articles in the early 1930s where he talks about what makes the ideal heroine—and he notes that above all they must be appealing to a female audience, so that’s really what he had in mind when casting his British heroines. In later interviews with Hitchcock in the 1950s, when the ideal of the Hitchcock blonde had been established, he pushed a PR line about the Nordic blonde, the ‘snow covered volcano’, and I feel that this was really shaped by Grace Kelly, whose magic he was striving to recreate.

One of the main factors in the differences is that it was in the late 1940s American period where he finally found autonomy in his work as both director and producer, and this allowed him to have complete control, rather than having to answer to other producers. That’s why Notorious is interesting as the first Edith Head collaboration, and the first where he really takes control of the heroine’s image.

Some of the differences are also down to the period they were made. Women in 1930s films often followed the screwball comedy mold, and they were designed to appeal to female audiences who liked plucky, fashionable heroines on screen. Then in the early 1940s, there was a trend for gothic romantic films that delved into the heroine’s anxieties, and this was all shaped by the Second World War. Priscilla Lane in Saboteur was another example of the archetype he would later develop more fully, but I feel he was disappointed a little in her performance. The period of the Hitchcock blonde was predominant in the 1950s, once he had his dream team, and with Edith Head shaping the costumes, and perhaps it could also be argued that the Hitchcock heroine that we think of is very much a 1950s woman.

AHM: As you well know, Hitchcock had originally intended to pull Princess Grace out of retirement so that she could star in MARNIE before later deciding to make the film with Tippi Hedren. How do you think the casting of Grace Kelly would have changed the final film? How do Hedren’s qualities differ from Grace Kelly’s?

CY: I imagine the making of the film would have been a happier experience for all involved if Grace Kelly had played Marnie, and this could, in turn, have had a significant effect on the final work.

Grace Kelly was also a more experienced actress, requiring less guidance than Tippi, and while Tippi has this real vulnerability and emotional quality, I wonder if Grace Kelly would have made the character seem more manipulative and less frightened. Maybe she would have had the ability to convince him of character changes, to cut the rape scene etc, which many people believe he kept in to demonstrate complete control of Tippi.

It’s often said that Hitchcock was never the same after the making of Marnie, it was an upsetting time for Tippi (as she has recounted). If Grace Kelly had done the role, his later films may have been different. He may have been allowed to make Mary Rose… It’s an interesting question as it could potentially have had a big effect on how we judge him now.

AHM: Alfred Hitchcock’s films are still enormously popular all around the globe. Why are his films still relevant while so many others have long been forgotten?

CY: They were highly innovative, combining humor, suspense, and similar themes throughout which have provoked countless theories and examinations around his fetishes and obsessions. He was a great PR man who knew how to publicize himself, evident from some of the early interviews in the 1930s, and so he became a fascinating, intriguing figure in himself. One of the appealing aspects of Hitchcock is also that he captures a particular time and place in his visuals, and Hitchcock, as a British director, captures America through the eyes of a Brit. So he explores Americana in Psycho, with the highways and motel, and uses huge American landmarks for the climax of many of his films (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and etc). He was also always looking to be innovative [and] to push boundaries, but he also changed the way we view films with Psycho. [It’s] hard to believe people would just wander into the cinema to see a film at any time, but Hitchcock insisted audiences not be permitted once the film started. So all these factors have contributed to the longevity of his films, and that we are still discussing him in detail along with recent controversies which have continued to keep him in the news.

Ingrid Bergman - Still from Notorious

“Ingrid Bergman in Notorious is another favorite…”

[Note: Some of the opinions expressed in this interview are not necessarily shared by Alfred Hitchcock Master. Please be respectful to others in your comments if you wish to dispute any of these opinions. Remember that this is a friendly community.]

Interview by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: 78/52 – Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Shout Factory

Release Date: February 27, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:31:46

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio:

5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio

2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio

Subtitles: English, Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1

Note: This release comes with a DVD disc that is housed in the same case.

Poster

“Of course, you can’t talk about the shower scene without talking about Psycho, and you can’t talk about Psycho without talking about Hitchcock, and you can’t talk about Hitchcock without talking about other films that influenced him, or films that he influenced, and so on. But everything in 78/52 was very carefully designed to be always, always, always about the shower scene.” -Alexandre O. Philippe (Michael Gingold, Rue-Morgue.com, October 18, 2017)

A lot of people may be asking themselves why anyone would devote a ninety-minute documentary to a single scene, but ninety minutes wasn’t nearly enough to do a proper job if Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene is any indication. The shower scene is one of the most audacious scenes in cinema history, and it affected the viewer like a surprise punch to the solar plexus without infuriating them. That takes some doing. Unfortunately, the scene (and in fact the entirety of Psycho) has been parodied, ripped-off, discussed, analyzed, and even re-made so many times at this point that it is probably impossible for the majority of people to experience the scene in that same manner any longer.

In any case, the shower scene deserves to be studied. It is a remarkable moment in a terrific film. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene attempts to dissect the reasons this influential scene was so effective. Philippe should certainly be applauded for his effort, but the end result doesn’t quite meet these intentions. The film’s first misstep is the ham-handed re-enactment of Marion Crane’s fateful drive to the Bates Motel. It wasn’t at all necessary and merely serves to distract and irritate those who love the film. However, the most discouraging aspect of this documentary is that it never rises above what people might find in a well-made Blu-ray supplement. It even carries a number of the same flaws—and the most notable of these flaws concerns some of the interview participants. For example, one would assume that a film seeking to dissect one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most infamous scenes would include a greater pool of legitimate authorities on either Hitchcock or cinema in general. The presence of Stephen Rebello, Bill Krohn, David Thomson, and Peter Bogdanovich was probably supposed to fulfill this requirement, but none of these people are prominently featured in the film (although Rebello fares better than the others). Worse, they don’t provide very much insight during the few moments that they are actually featured. Some might point out that Guillermo del Toro can be seen as an authority on Hitchcock (and his contribution is more than welcome).

Unfortunately, competent theorists are buried by participants that have absolutely no business being in the film at all. Such individuals pollute the entire duration of 78/52, and few of them actually add anything pertinent about the subject at hand. For example: Could someone please explain why Elijah Wood, Illeana Douglas, and Eli Roth are featured in the film? How could any of these people be considered an authority on Alfred Hitchcock? Elijah Wood doesn’t even seem to have seen North by Northwest! He looks completely lost when the film is mentioned and later seems surprised to learn about the film’s infamous final shot. Eli Roth throws Hitchcock’s name around quite a bit in his publicity interviews and commentary tracks, but nothing in his films suggest that he has learned anything from him (except perhaps on the most superficial level). The inclusion of such individuals only serve to remind the audience that the statements made throughout the piece can’t be taken seriously. Their very presence undermines the validity of what is good in the film (and it does have its virtues).

Alexandre O. Philippe - Director

Alexandre O. Philippe directed 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene.

Marli Renfro’s participation is especially appreciated. Her voice is one that has largely been excluded from previous documentaries about Psycho. She recalls what it was like to double for Janet Leigh in the shower scene, and one imagines that some of her recollections will be new discoveries for many viewers. Leigh discusses the scene in some very interesting archival footage from Laurent Bouzereau’s The Making of ‘Psycho, and Tere Carrubba, Jamie Leigh Curtis, and Oz Perkins are also on hand (although their contributions are nominal).

A large number of contemporary filmmakers have been brought in with somewhat mixed results. Justin Benson, for example, doesn’t seem to bring much more than snarky comments about the film to the table, while some of Bob Murawski’s valuable comments are undermined by his tendency to keep criticizing the shape of Mrs. Bates’ head. Murawski is an editor that has worked on a number of films (including a good number of Sam Raimi titles) and one can understand his presence, but it is Walter Murch’s contribution that holds the most promise. Oddly enough,  Amy E. Duddleston’s discussion about trying to replicate the shower scene in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake (which this reviewer loathes) is rather interesting as she admits that they were never able to make it work.

Unfortunately, the film’s better elements are buried by too many inappropriate participants, and this results in a documentary that isn’t nearly as focused as the premise promises. Audiences are merely given an abundance of conjecture that is rarely supported by insightful analysis (and they only skim the surface when any effort is actually made). It is an extremely engaging documentary, but the reason for this has more to do with the film being discussed than with the thrill of receiving any truly revelatory insight into the scene that is supposed to be dissected.

One Sheet

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The two discs are protected in a standard Blu-ray case with related artwork that is reasonably attractive.

The menu also utilizes this artwork and is accompanied by the sound of faint shower water. Overall, it is an above average presentation for a documentary film.

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

As is usual with documentary films that contain numerous archival elements, the quality of the film’s image fluctuates a great deal depending on the source being used at any given moment. The transfer is certainly solid and newly shot footage always displays an impressive amount of fine detail. All other elements are well rendered as well and are beyond criticism. However, the archival elements are all over the place and some of the footage seems to be sampled from up-scaled standard definition sources (although, this isn’t necessarily the case). Obviously, documentary filmmakers must make do with the materials that they are allowed to use. In any case, the quality falls in line with what one has come to expect from such productions.

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio options are both strong options with the 5.1 mix obviously offering a slightly more dynamic experience. Obviously, the dialogue driven nature of the film should limit the viewer’s sonic expectations, but music and sound effects do expand the sound design quite a bit. It all sounds very good. The dialogue is clean and intelligible, the music and effects have room to breathe, and everything is mixed for maximum impact.

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Extended Interview with Walter Murch – (55:28)

The inclusion of this lengthy interview adds a bit of legitimacy to the disc. Murch has made a name for himself as an editor and as a sound editor. It is in this capacity that he gives a sort of examination of the shower scene, but he takes it further and actually goes into theories about how the viewer processes images. Obviously, this infuences his own personal approach to editing—even though the collision montage in Psycho purposly goes against this in order to cause slight disorientation in the audience.

Extended Interview with Guillermo Del Toro – (22:13)

It is always interesting to hear Guillermo Del Toro discuss cinema. He is the perfect blend of scholar and fanboy (not to mention the fact that he is a talented filmmaker in his own right). His discourse may be largely theoretical but it is always interesting (despite the fact that one doesn’t always agree with his comments). As with the interview with Walter Murch, this footage was obviously shot to be utilized in the film itself and is therefore presented in black and white.

“Stabbing Melons” with Director Alexandre O. Philippe – (02:52)

It’s difficult to discern why this footage was included on the disc as it doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the proceedings. The viewer is shown a small crew as they set up tables of melons and shoot them (some of the footage being shot is in the film). They mic the melons and proceed to stab them. Finally, the casaba melon used by Alfred Hitchcock is brought out to recreate the sound of the knife cutting into Marion Crane’s flesh.

Theatrical Trailer – (01:23)

IFC took a bit of a risk using so much of the newly shot “Psycho” footage in their trailer for the film. One can imagine a select portion of the intended audience cringing and being turned off by the film completely. However, the moody atmosphere of the images certainly raises a certain amount of interest.

Final Words:

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene is fun to watch, but it doesn’t really add anything revelatory to our understanding of the film (or of the scene in question). There is an excellent “making of” documentary included on the various Psycho Blu-ray releases that would probably make better use of the viewer’s time. However, anyone interested in the film will find it worth seeing if they happen to get the opportunity. Just don’t shell out any money for the privilege.

Review by: Devon Powell