Blu-ray Review: Lifeboat

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: March 21, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:36:58

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

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

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.39:1

Bitrate: 24.91 Mbps

Notes: A DVD edition of this title was previously released by 20th Century Fox in North America, but this marks the film’s Blu-ray debut in this region.

Title

“…It was a challenge, but it was also because I wanted to prove a theory I had then. Analyzing the psychological pictures that were being turned out, it seemed to me that, visually, eighty percent of the footage was shot in close-ups or semi-close shots. Most likely it wasn’t a conscious thing with most of the di­rectors, but rather an instinctive need to come closer to the action. In a sense, this treatment was an anticipation of what was to become the television technique.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While there is certainly an abundance of close-ups and medium shots in Lifeboat, Hitchcock still manages to pull off a diverse and creative mise-en-scène throughout its duration. In fact, Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most creatively successful cinematic experiments. Unfortunately, the film is usually treated with a certain amount of apathy by scholars and critics.

It is too easy to simply write the film off as an anomaly in the director’s career and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s droll reaction to Tallulah Bankhead’s unfortunate habit of not wearing any underwear: “I’m not sure if this is a matter for wardrobe or hairdressing” or his reaction to Mary Anderson when she asked which was her better side: “You’re sitting on it, my dear.” In fact, most writings on the film focus on such anecdotes (and no two versions of either of these stories are consistent). Very little attention is paid to the film itself or to the rich viewing experience that it provides to willing audiences.

Perhaps this is because the film isn’t usually evaluated in the same manner as most Hitchcock pictures. There are those who see this as an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novella, and this particular approach is both misguided and misleading. John Steinbeck wasn’t even responsible for the film’s premise—despite what the author’s widow has claimed in the past. Hitchcock himself originated the idea of making a movie about a cross-section of American society adrift on a Lifeboat and had originally approached Ernest Hemingway to write a treatment. John Steinbeck was only contacted after Hemingway turned the project down. He agreed to write a treatment in novella form if he would be allowed to publish the novella after the film’s release. The treatment was never completed nor was it ever published—though a ghostwriter did rework the treatment for magazine publication in order to help promote the film’s release.

“I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give a dramatic form to each of the se­quences.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

These facts should alter one’s reading of the film as an adaptation because it was actually an original screenplay that was developed in much the same manner that other original scripts were developed. However, this none of these facts are intended to discount Steinbeck’s contribution to the project. The resulting film is one of the Hitchcock’s most political and it makes a number of interesting social observations and statements.

20th Century Fox understood this and saw it as an important “prestige” film, and Darryl F. Zanuck, therefore, wanted to make contributions to the picture. This resulted in memorandum that pressured the director to make cuts and to add music. In the end, only minor cuts were made and music was only added to the beginning and ending of the film. It is believed that Zanuck’s desire for Hitchcock to direct another movie for the studio resulted in his giving the director more creative freedom than he would have usually allowed. In any case, Zanuck was pleased with the final result.

Hitchcock Cameo - Publicity Photo

This is a publicity still featuring Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.

Hitchcock Cameo

This is a screenshot of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat. “That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually, I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink. I couldn’t play one of the nine survivors since each had to be played by a competent performer. Finally, I hit on a good idea. At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. These photographs were used in a news¬ paper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them—and me—when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat. The role was a great hit. I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how they could get Reduco.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

In fact, everyone involved expected the film to be an enormous success and reviews were initially positive, but Bosley Crowther’s second review altered the film’s critical reception from that point forward. Dorothy Thompson—the template for Bankhead’s characterization of Constance Porter—famously gave the film ten days to get out of town.

“One of the things that drew the fire of the American critics is that I had shown a German as being superior to the other char­acters. But at that time, 1940-41, the French had been defeated, and the allies were not doing too well. Moreover, the German, who at first claimed to be a simple sailor, was actually a submarine commander; therefore there was every reason for his being better qualified than the others to take over the command of the life­ boat. But the critics apparently felt that a nasty Nazi couldn’t be a good sailor. Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit else­where, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics often complained that Hitchcock never made political or socially relevant films—but when he made this kind of film, they usually lashed out at the director. The reason for this is simple. Most so-called “relevant” films were in all actuality propaganda, and propaganda is never completely honest. Audiences must be pandered to in order for propaganda to be successful: “Americans are strong, righteous, and courageous. What’s more, we have right on our side…” Hitchcock doesn’t pander. He holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and darker impulses—and he does this in Lifeboat. His pictures are more relevant than most of the films that critics praised. Lifeboat was a warning about the complacent self-interest and petty philosophical differences that divide us or weaken our resolve, and this is why the film is still relevant.

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the com­mon enemy, whose strength was precisely de­rived from a spirit of unity and of determination.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics and journalists weren’t the only ones complaining. John Steinbeck disliked the film and tried in vain to have his name removed from both film and its publicity.

“New York January 10, 1944 Dear Sirs, I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary, there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro, there was a Negro of dignity, purpose, and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.” -John Steinbeck (Letter to 20th Century Fox, January 10, 1944)

It is more than a little obvious that the author’s dissatisfaction with the film was entirely due to the many changes made to his unfinished treatment, and it should be said that his comments about Canada Lee’s portrayal of Joe Spencer are enormously unfair. He may well be the most dignified character on the boat—and he certainly couldn’t be labeled “a stock comedy Negro.” It is lamentable that the film suggests that Joe is a reformed pickpocket, but this is certainly overshadowed by Canada Lee’s dignified portrayal and the fact that he is the film’s moral anchor. In any case, Steinbeck’s request was ignored. The studio had agreed to the writer’s salary in part because they could exploit his name in the film’s publicity materials and they weren’t about to give that up.

SS01.jpg

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the Blu-ray disc in the standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that makes use of two different vintage one-sheet designs. The first side makes use of the original American one-sheet while the second side showcases the 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork. Both choices are better than the average home video artwork.

Blu-ray Cover (B).jpg

There is also a small Kino Lorber catalog included that features box art for many of their other releases.

Menu

The disc’s static menu also utilizes the hand-painted 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork and this works quite beautifully. Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image.

SS02.jpg

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber’s release of the film is a solid one that showcases more information on the left and right edges of the frame than the original DVD edition of the film. The image is remarkably film-live without appearing too grainy and this allows fine detail to shine through without any annoying issues. The film has never looked this sharp. The black levels are deep and accurate and contrast seems to accurately represent the film. There are a few scratches and some dirt can be seen on occasion but these never become problematic.

SS03.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s mono DTS-HD Master Audio track seem to reproduce the film’s original audio without any issues. Problems like hiss, hum, pops, and crackle isn’t evident. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the atmospheric effects are given enough room to breathe. The music heard in the film credits seems a bit boxed in but this is the result of the original recording methods and not the transfer.

SS04.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas is a critic for Video Watchdog and doesn’t seem to have any real authoritative knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock’s work. He does supply a wealth of knowledge and his analysis of the film is enjoyable, intriguing, and reasonably astute. However, the revelations provided are marred by a number of inaccuracies. For example, John Steinbeck was not responsible for the film’s premise as he was commissioned by Hitchcock to write the Lifeboat treatment in novella form. What’s more, Joe Spencer doesn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. He recites the 23rs Psalm. These are only two of a number of inaccuracies. Having said this, this commentary is worth one’s time for some of the theoretical analysis provided.

Audio Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper

Drew Casper is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and teaches courses on Alfred Hitchcock. His commentary is more languidly paced than the Tim Lucas commentary and there are more moments of silence. Much of the same information is offered here, and some of Casper’s authoritative statements are simply conjecture. However, the information that he offers is both interesting and worthwhile. What’s more, it is clear that he does have an abundance of knowledge about the director and his work while Tim Lucas seems to have retrieved most of his information from a simple Google search.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: Theater of War – (20:00)

Peter Ventrella’s retrospective “making-of” documentary isn’t as comprehensive as some of those made by Laurent Bouzereau during the early days of DVD, but it does offer much more background information than those he made about Alfred Hitchcock’s Warner Brothers films. Unfortunately, none of the film’s participants were on hand to discuss the film, but Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter), Mary Stone (Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter), Drew Casper (Hitchcock scholar), and Robert DeMott (Steinbeck scholar) appear during the program to provide some general background information and a few stories from the set. Viewers who are well versed in Hitchcock history might not find much new information here, but the vast majority of the population should learn quite a bit. It’s really a great addition to the disc!

Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview – (11:54)

It’s very pleasing to find that audio from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews is being added to the supplemental packages for Hitchcock’s films. These excerpts find Hitchcock discussing Lifeboat and his memories and thoughts are illustrated by still photos, posters, lobby cards, and footage from the film.

Lifeboat Blu-ray Promo – (01:27)

One wishes that Kino Lorber had included the film’s original theatrical trailer instead of this advertisement for this Blu-ray release. This really doesn’t add anything to the package and those who have already bought the disc don’t really need to be sold.

Additional Trailers

Interestingly, three theatrical trailers for other Kino Lorber releases are provided on the disc:

Compulsion Theatrical Trailer – (01:01)

Five Miles to Midnight Theatrical Trailer – (03:19)

23 Paces to Baker Street Theatrical Trailer – (02:15)

None of these are relevant to Lifeboat unless one considers that Anthony Perkins (Psycho) stars in Five Miles to Midnight, Vera Miles (The Wrong Man, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) appears in 23 Paces to Baker Street, and Compulsion—like Rope is based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders (although Rope is based on a play that is loosely inspired by the murders while Compulsion is a direct adaptation of those events).

SS05.jpg

Final Words:

Kino Lorber’s solid transfer and a nice supplemental package make this an easy recommendation for Hitchcock enthusiasts and admirers of classic cinema!

SS06.jpg

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: Hitchcock/Truffaut

blu-ray-cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: December 20, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 80 min

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio: 2.0 English Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, and Spanish

Ratio: 1.78:1

Notes: A DVD edition of this title is also available.

Cannes One Sheet

Cannes Film Festival’s One Sheet

“It’s a film that I was very excited about making because it’s a book that has meant a great deal to me for – I mean I’m fifty-five – so for the last forty-three years of my life. Hitchcock’s work, and Truffaut’s work to a certain extent as well – but Hitchcock’s work has for me a deeper connection because I started looking at his films right around the same time as I read the book, and I’ve been re-watching them over and over since then. I’ve never even started to count how many times I’ve seen Vertigo or Rear Window or Psycho or Saboteur or I Confess – and so, in that sense as well, it was something that was exciting for me. Then there was the idea of making a movie that really looked at the question of filmmaking, at a moment when the idea of filmmaking is a little bit debased – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – and looked at it in new and surprising ways. So those were all the things that were in my mind.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

An understanding and appreciation of the importance of Truffaut’s landmark text can be felt throughout Jones’ remarkably engaging documentary. It is reasonable for cinephiles to temper their excitement about such a film with certain misgivings. Is it possible that the documentary might overshadow or replace the essential book that inspired it, or will it inspire further interest and appreciation for the text? We are more than a little pleased to report that the latter is the case.

François Truffaut would be quite happy to know that his book is still influencing the landscape of cinema and that it remains the single point from which all other Hitchcock scholarship revolves. After all, it was his intention to change the critical and public perception of Hitchcock as a mere entertainer or expert technician.

 “Nowadays the work of Alfred Hitchcock is admired all over the world. Young people who are just discovering his art through the current re-release of Rear Window and Vertigo, or through North by Northwest, may assume his prestige has always been recognized, but this is far from being the case…

…His fame had spread further throughout the world via the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid-fifties. But American and European critics made him pay for his commercial success by reviewing his work with condescension, and by belittling each new film…

From my past career as a critic, in common with all the young writers from Cahiers du Cinéma, I still felt the imperative need to convince. It was obvious that Hitchcock, whose genius for publicity was equaled only by that of Salvador Dalí, had in the long run been victimized in American intellectual circles because of his facetious response to interviewers and his deliberate practice of deriding their questions. In examining his films, it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues. It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock.

That is what this book is all about… I dare say that this book achieved this result. At the time it was published, however, a young American film professor predicted: ‘This book will do more harm to your reputation in America than your worst film.’ As it happens, Charles Thomas Samuels was mistaken. He committed suicide a year or two later, undoubtedly for other reasons. In fact, from 1968 on, American critics began to take Hitchcock’s work more seriously. Today, a movie like Psycho is regarded as a classic, and young film buffs have adopted Hitchcock wholeheartedly, without begrudging him his success, wealth, and fame.”François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

hitchcock-issue

Of course, things might be quite different today had Hitchcock not agreed to participate. It probably helped that Truffaut was a celebrated filmmaker himself at this point. This was not the case when François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock first met one another.

“That happened in 1955, when Alfred Hitchcock, having completed the location shooting of To Catch a Thief on the Côte d’Azur, came to the Saint-Maurice studios, in Joinville, for the post-synchronization of the picture. My friend Claude Chabrol and I decided to go there and interview him for Cahiers du Cinéma. Armed with a long list of intricate questions and a borrowed tape recorder, we sallied forth in high spirits.

In Joinville, we were directed to a pitch-black auditorium, where a loop showing Cary Grant and Brigitte Auber in a motorboat was being run continuously on the screen. In the darkness, we introduced ourselves to Hitchcock who courteously asked us to wait for him at the studio bar across the courtyard.

Both movie-crazy, thrilled by our brief preview of Hitchcock’s latest work, we emerged into the blinding glare of daylight, literally bursting with excitement. In the heat of our discussion, we failed to notice the dark-grey frozen pond in the middle of the courtyard. With a single step forward, we went over the ledge, landing on a thin layer of ice, which immediately gave way. Within seconds we were immersed in a pool of freezing water and a state of shock. In a hollow voice, I asked Chabrol ‘What about the tape recorder?’ He replied by slowly raising his left arm to hold the case in mid-air with the water bleakly oozing out from all sides like a stream of tears.

Staggering around the sloping basin, unable to reach the edge without sliding right back to the center, we were trapped in a situation straight out of a Hitchcock movie. Eventually, with the helping hand of a charitable bystander, we managed to reach firm ground. A wardrobe mistress who was passing by invited us to follow her to a dressing room where we might take off our clothes and dry out. When we attempted to thank her for her kindness, she said in a businesslike way, ‘What a way to make a living. Are you extras for Rififi?’ Upon learning that we were reporters, she lost all interest and told us to clear out.

A few minutes later, still soaking wet and shivering with cold, we made our way to the bar, where Hitchcock awaited us. He merely looked us over, and without a single comment on our appearance amiably suggested another appointment for that evening at the Hotel Plaza Athénée. A year later, upon spotting us at one of his Paris press conferences, Hitchcock finally acknowledged the incident by saying, ‘Gentlemen, every time I see a pair of ice cubes clicking together in a glass of whiskey, I think of you two.’

We subsequently learned that Hitchcock had embellished the incident with a twist of his own. According to the Hitchcock version, Chabrol was dressed as a priest and I was wearing a gendarme’s uniform when we turned up for the interview.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Had Truffaut requested that Hitchcock participate in a career spanning interview in 1955, it is quite likely that the portly genius would have politely declined the request. However, a decade can make quite a difference. When the French auteur sat down to write Hitchcock a letter in the summer of 1962, he wasn’t a journalist or a film critic. He was an admiring fellow-filmmaker.

“Dear Mr. Hitchcock,

First of all, allow me to remind you who I am. A few years ago, in late 1954, when I was a film journalist, I came with my friend Claude Chabrol to interview you at the Saint-Maurice studio where you were directing the post-synchronization of To Catch a Thief. You asked us to go and wait for you in the studio bar, and it was then that, in the excitement of having watched fifteen times in succession a ‘loop’ showing Brigitte Auber and Cary Grant in a speedboat, Chabrol and I fell into the frozen tank in the studio courtyard. You very kindly agreed to postpone the interview which was conducted that same evening at your hotel.

Subsequently, each time you visited Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting you with Odette Ferry, and for the following year you even said to me, ‘Whenever I see ice cubes in a glass of whiskey I think of you.’ One year after that, you invited me to come to New York for a few days and watch the shooting of The Wrong Man, but I had to decline the invitation since, a few months after Claude Chabrol, I turned to film-making myself.

I have made three films, the first of which, The 400 Blows, had, I believe, a certain success in Hollywood. The latest, Jules et Jim, is currently showing in New York. I come now to the point of my letter. In the course of my discussions with foreign journalists and especially in New York, I have come to realize that their conception of your work is often very superficial. Moreover, the kind of propaganda that we were responsible for in Cahiers du Cinéma was excellent as far as France was concerned, but inappropriate for America because it was too intellectual.

Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love for the cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself and it is that which I would like to talk to you about.

I would like you to grant me a tape-recorded interview which would take about eight days to conduct and would add up to about thirty hours of recordings. The point of this would be to distil not a series of articles but an entire book which would be published simultaneously in New York (I would consider offering it, for example, to Simon and Schuster where I have some friends) and Paris (by Gallimard or Robert Laffont), then, probably later, more or less everywhere in the world.

If the idea were to appeal to you, and you agreed to do it, here is how I think we might proceed: I could come and stay for about ten days wherever it would be most convenient for you. From New York I would bring with me Miss Helen Scott who would be the ideal interpreter; she carries out simultaneous translations at such speed that we would have the impression of speaking to one another without any intermediary and, working as she does at the French Film Office in New York, she is also completely familiar with the vocabulary of the cinema. She and I would take rooms in the hotel closest to your home or to whichever office you might arrange.

Here is the work schedule. Just a very detailed interview in chronological order. To start with, some biographical notes, then the first jobs you had before entering the film industry, then your stay in Berlin.

This would be followed by:

1. The British silent films;

2. the British sound films;

3. the first American films for Selznick and the spy films;

4. the two Transatlantic Pictures;

5. the Vistavision period;

6. from The Wrong Man to The Birds.

The questions would focus more precisely on:

a) The circumstances surrounding the inception of each film;

b) the development and construction of the screenplay;

c) the stylistic problems peculiar to each film;

d) the situation of the film in relation to those preceding it;

e) your own assessment of the artistic and commercial result in relation to your intentions.

There would be questions of a more general nature on good and bad scripts, different styles of dialogue, the direction of actors, the art of editing, [and] the development of new techniques, special effects, and color. These would be interspaced among the different categories in order to prevent any interruption in chronology.

The body of work would be preceded by a text which I would write myself and which might be summarized as follows: if overnight, the cinema had to do without its soundtrack and became once again a silent art, then many directors would be forced into unemployment, but, among the survivors, there would be Alfred Hitchcock and everyone would realize at last that he is the greatest film director in the world.

If this project interests you, I would ask you to let me know how you would like to proceed. I imagine that you are in the process of editing The Birds, and perhaps you would prefer to wait a while?

For my part, at the end of this year, I am due to make my next films: an adaptation of a novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, which is why I would prefer the interviews to take place between 15 July and 15 September 1962.

If you were to accept the proposition, I would gather together all the documents I would need to prepare the four or five hundred questions which I wish to ask you, and I would have the Brussels Cinémathèque screen for me those films of yours with which I am least familiar. That would take me about three weeks, which would mean I could be at your disposal from the beginning of July.

A few weeks after our interviews, the transcribed, edited and corrected text would be submitted to you in English so that you might make any corrections that you considered useful, and the book itself would be ready to come out by the end of this year.

Awaiting your reply, I beg you to accept, dear Mr. Hitchcock, my profound admiration. I remain yours sincerely, Francois Truffaut” François Truffaut (Letter to Alfred Hitchcock, June 02, 1962)

The letter was effective and Alfred Hitchcock soon responded to the proposal with a telegram.

Dear Monsieur Truffaut, Your letter brought tears to my eyes, and I am so grateful to receive such a tribute from you. – Stop – I am shooting The Birds, and this will continue until 15 July, and after that, I will have to begin editing which will take me several weeks. – Stop – I think [that] I will wait until we have finished shooting The Birds, and then I will contact you with the idea of getting together around the end of August. – Stop – Thank you again for your charming letter. – Kind regards. – Cordially yours, Alfred Hitchcock.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Telegram to François Truffaut)

It is easy to understand how such an admiring letter might bring tears to a man’s eyes, and it is clear that Hitchcock was enthusiastic about the book. As fate would have it, the interviews commenced on August 13, 1962—Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday.

“Every morning he would pick us up at the Beverly Hills Hotel to take us to his office at Universal Studios. With each of us wearing a microphone and a sound engineer in the next room recording our voices, we kept up a running conversation from nine to six every day, achieving something of a track record as we talked our way through lunches.

A witty raconteur noted for his entertaining interviews, Hitchcock started out true to form, regaling us with a series of amusing anecdotes. It was only on the third day that he became more sober and thoughtful in spelling out the ups and downs of his career. His assessment of the achievements and the failures was genuinely self-critical, and his account of his doubts, frustrations, and hopes was completely sincere. What emerged as the talks progressed was a striking contrast between Hitchcock’s public image and his real self.” François Truffaut (Introduction, Hitchcock, 1966)

photograph-of-francois-truffaut-alfred-hitchcock-and-helen-scott-taken-by-photographer-philippe-halsman

This is a photograph of Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, and Helen Scott that was taken by photographer Philippe Halsman.

The process of transcribing the interviews and editing them down into a cohesive book was a bit more difficult and time-consuming than Truffaut had predicted. His originally anticipated “few weeks” turned into years.

“While we were recording these talks with Hitchcock, the final editing of The Birds, his forty-eighth picture, was underway. It took us some four years to transcribe the tapes and gather the photographs. Whenever I met Hitchcock during this period, I would question him in order to update the book I called ‘the Hitchbook.’ The first edition, therefore, published at the end of 1967, concludes with his fiftieth film, Torn Curtain.” François Truffaut (Preface to the Revised Edition, Hitchcock, October 2, 1985)

The book would eventually be revised to include commentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s final three films and has gone on to change the way that critics look at Alfred Hitchcock’s work. In fact, it has altered film theory in general. Better yet, the project led to a friendship that lasted decades. Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut frequently corresponded and even consulted with one another regarding their current projects. When Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make a career-altering film entitled Kaleidoscope (later re-titled Frenzy—but this project should not be confused with his 1972 film), he sent Francois Truffaut the script. Truffaut wrote back with an in-depth letter that included thoughtful script notes. (Universal later forced the director to abandon the project in favor of Topaz.) Truffaut was also among the many speakers when Hitchcock was presented with AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Of course, all of these things are touched upon in this wonderful documentary, but the infamous sound recordings of their trailblazing interview is the thread that holds the entire film together (and our readers will be relieved to note that the result is a better-tailored product than the suit that Norman Lloyd wore in Saboteur). The tapes of these recordings were discovered in the early nineties by Serge Toubiana, who co-wrote the film with Kent Jones.

“I wrote the project because my point of view is very specific because I am the guy who found the tapes a long time ago. It was in 1992. I was making a documentary on Truffaut at the time and I was working in the archives of Truffaut’s office in Les Films du Carrosse with a friend Michel Pascal who co-directed the documentary: Francois Truffaut: Stolen Portraits. I was looking in the archives and I found a big box and I opened it and we saw many reel-to-reel tapes. We put one of the reels on the Nagra and suddenly the voice of Hitchcock was there. It was a miracle, you know. These were the tapes from the famous dialogue between Truffaut and Hitchcock in August 1962 in Universal Studios in Hitchcock’s bungalow. And we had the voices, the three voices: Truffaut’s voice in French, Hitchcock speaking English and Helen Scott who translated, and it was incredible material. We put just a very small extract in the movie we did at the time…

…I read the book when I was very young in the 60s – the first edition in 1966 in France. You know the first edition is very special, it’s not “Hitchcock/Truffaut”–it’s “Le Cinema selon Alfred Hitchcock.” It was such an important book in my education of cinema. For me, this dialogue is one of the most important moments in the story of cinema because you have a young French director who was also an important critic, Francois Truffaut, who was thirty at the time in 1962 and had just made three movies. And you had Alfred Hitchcock who was the master. And this young guy he wanted to make, as he said in the introduction, a cookbook of how Hitchcock made his career as an auteur. So it’s a dialogue between the French theory of auteurs and a Hollywood director who had never won the Oscar but who was very famous as an entertainment director but not [considered] an auteur. And Truffaut wanted to prove that Hitchcock was a master. So it’s a dialogue between French and American cinema.” -Serge Toubiana (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Those who have already read the essential text should still find these audio excerpts fascinating because there are subtle differences that are rather revelatory.

“It comes as a revelation because in the book Hitchcock appears to be very cold, precise, distanced and kind of lacking in humor, except for some not very good jokes that he tells. The tapes are another matter entirely – he’s very warm and very funny and very spontaneous. And Truffaut did not speak a word of English and so he was very dependent on Helen Scott who was translating every word. She got some right, some not so right. Then her translation was amended in France, then he worked on the book, then I believe it was re-translated back into English – that’s the way it reads to me. So it’s a kind of a remove from Hitchcock – so in general, that’s a revelation. Also, the sense of him wondering if he should have spent more time on character is in the book, but you can hear him returning to it in the tapes. That’s fascinating and beautiful and very moving.” -Kent Jones (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

These audio excerpts are illustrated by a wealth of wonderful film clips from Alfred Hitchcock’s vast filmography and are commented upon by ten of cinema’s most respected filmmakers: Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Peter Bogdanovich, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, Olivier Assayas, Paul Schrader, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and James Gray. Some of these participants may seem like unusual choices, but this actually illustrates the far-reaching influence of Truffaut’s text. However, one does wonder why certain directors weren’t included in the film. A few obvious examples would be Guillermo del Toro—who considers himself a faithful student of Hitchcock’s, and Brian De Palma—who has made a career of directing blatant Hitchcock homages. However, this is more of an observation than an outright criticism.

Hitchcock/Truffaut is an extremely enjoyable experience and an in-depth appreciation of the landmark text. What is isn’t and what it was never intended to be—and this should be stressed—is a replacement for the landmark book. Cinephiles will still want to read and re-read Truffaut’s tome as it is the definitive source for anyone wishing to learn about the master of suspense. Similar book-length interviews about various filmmakers have been published in the years since but none offer such an in-depth commentary on such a long career or such a truly unique voice in the cinema. In fact, one hopes that the film renews enough interest in the book for publishers to see the potential of a brand-new edition that features a re-edited version of the text that doesn’t exclude quite as much material.

screenshot-1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal packages the Blu-ray disk in a standard Blu-ray case with fil related artwork that features a photo of François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock that had originally appeared in Truffaut’s landmark book. The photo was later utilized in the artwork for this documentary’s theatrical one-sheet and this is the same artwork featured here.

The disc’s menu makes use of the same photograph and is accompanied by Jeremiah Bornfield’s score.

Screenshot 2.jpg

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Universal’s AVC encoded image transfer is about as good as anyone could reasonably expect. The interview segments are quite sharp and showcase an excellent level of detail, but the film’s archival footage is sometimes a bit less stellar. However, any shortcomings seem to be inherent in the documentary’s source elements—and these are never distracting. There is some also minor strobing during some of the textual footage, but this is barely noticeable. Most will be more than satisfied with the overall quality.

screenshot-3

Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is really quite great, but the interview driven documentary doesn’t offer much in the way of dynamic surround speaker activity. What it does offer is a solid representation of the film’s original soundtrack—and this is all anyone has a right to expect.

screenshot-4

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Kent Jones in Conversation with Noah Baumbach – (23:51)

This is essentially more of a conversation about Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, the differences between the audio tapes and the book, how the documentary was shaped, and other such relevant topics. The Q&A was held after the film’s New York première on October 27th, 2015. It is an interesting conversation that never becomes boring even if there isn’t much in the way of revelatory information.

Peter Bogdanovich Remembers Hitchcock – (06:37)

This is the first of four featurettes that are obviously compilations of unused footage shot for the documentary that didn’t make it into the final film. They have each been edited to focus on a particular subject. In the case of this featurette, we have Peter Bogdanovich discussing Alfred Hitchcock and how he became to be associated with the director. It is an interesting little conversation with Bogdanovich, who is always an articulate and interesting interview subject.

An Appreciation of Notorious – (06:16)

Various interview subjects discuss Notorious, and it is clear that the participants have either a fondness or a sincere respect for the film. The observations are always interesting if never revelatory, and fans of the film will be especially happy to spend six minutes of their time watching this nice little featurette. This is probably the strongest of the four featurettes included on the disc, although it would have benefited from showing footage from the actual film.

Rope: Pro and Con – (05:01)

Some of the interview subjects discuss Rope and whether they think it is a good film or merely an interesting failed experiment. A case for both sides is argued, but there seems to be a slight preference for footage where participants discuss why the film doesn’t work. It is an interesting little featurette but fans of the film might be a bit put off.

Richard Linklater on Truffaut – (03:52)

This is a short piece that finds Richard Linklater discussing his admiration for Truffaut and the “Hitchbook.” There isn’t much in the way of information here, but it is a nice little surface level conversation. One of the more interesting comments made here is that Truffaut probably could have added another film to his filmography in the time it took him to prepare the book.

Screenshot 5.jpg

Final Words:

Hitchcock/Truffaut is one of the absolutely essential documentaries concerning Alfred Hitchcock and it comes to Blu-ray with a solid transfer from Universal Studios.

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet.jpg

Source Material:

François Truffaut (Hitchcock, 1966)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock: Revised Edition, October 2, 1985)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebook’s, 1999)

Unknown (Hitchcock/Truffaut Press Kit, 2015)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

Simon Hitchman (NewWaveFilm.com, March 2016)

 

Book Interview: The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia

Cover

Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield

Release Date: June 09, 2016

A Conversation with Stephen Whitty

Several decades after his last motion picture was produced, Alfred Hitchcock is still regarded by critics and fans alike as one of the masters of cinema. To study the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock is to study the history of cinema. From the silent films of the 1920s to his final feature in 1976, the director’s many films continue to entertain audiences and inspire filmmakers. In The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, Stephen Whitty provides a detailed overview of the director’s work. This reference volume features in-depth critical entries on each of his major films as well as biographical essays on his most frequent collaborators and discussions of significant themes in his work. For this book, Whitty doesn’t merely draw from the overwhelming pool of scholarship that already exists (though this does seem to be the basis of much of his work). He supplements the already existing information with his own source materials such as interviews he conducted with associates of the director—including screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (Marnie), actresses Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Kim Novak (Vertigo), actor Farley Granger (Rope; Strangers on a Train), actor and producer Norman Lloyd (Saboteur; Spellbound), and Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia (Stage Fright; Strangers on a Train; Psycho)—among others. Encompassing the entire range of the director’s career, this is a comprehensive overview of cinema’s ultimate showman. A detailed and lively look at the master of suspense, The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia will be of interest to professors, students, and the many fans of the director’s work.

Alfred Hitchcock Master is proud to have secured this exclusive interview with Stephen Whitty, wherein he discusses his excellent book in candid detail.

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

SW: The book is pretty much exactly as its title describes it – an A to Z (well, Y, anyway) of hundreds of topics, spread out over 500 illustrated, hardcover pages. Entries range from discussions of Hitchcock themes and obsessions (blondes, voyeurism, and guilt) to analyses of his films and television shows, to biographical essays on his most frequent stars and collaborators.

Unlike most other Hitchcock books, it’s arranged in a way that you can dip in and out at any time – you don’t have to wade through an entire chapter on Hitchcock in the ‘30s, for example, to find out about the making of The 39 Steps. But while you’re reading that entry, you’ll find  keywords that point you to other, stand-alone entries you might want to turn to – on Robert Donat, say, or images of bondage in Hitchcock’s work. So I think it’s a book that’s helpful to both students doing research on a particular film, and film buffs who just want a quick, browsable, entertaining source of information.

After I began writing my book, I did see that there had been another encyclopedia on Hitchcock about a decade ago. I looked at it quickly to see what its approach had been – which seemed to be less personal, more academic than mine – and then put it aside so it wouldn’t influence me in any way. “The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia” is a reference book too, but I wanted it to be very much based on my own experiences – my analysis of his work, my opinions of his stars, and especially my interviews with many of the people he’d worked with over the years. So there’s traditional scholarship here, yes, but also backstage stories of the making of the movies, and insights from and about the people he made them with.

AHM: What gave you the idea to write a Hitchcock themed encyclopedia, and what were the biggest challenges in writing the book?

SW: I had just gotten the latest catalogue from Rowman & Littlefield and saw that they had two similar volumes – encyclopedias on Tim Burton, and the Coen brothers – but nothing on Hitchcock, who I think remains perhaps Hollywood’s most influential, and certainly famous, director. I queried them and they were interested and I went to work.

I was lucky in that I’ve been writing about entertainment for more than 20 years and still had my notes on many Hitchcock colleagues I’ve interviewed over that time, from Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint to Bruce Dern and Norman Lloyd. And, of course, I have all the major critical studies and biographies that have come out on him. Tracking down copies of some of the films, such as Under Capricorn and Waltzes from Vienna, was a little harder.

The hardest thing was just finding the time to write what’s basically a one-person encyclopedia – I think the final manuscript was over 250,000 words. And then, of course, giving everything a second and third read, and fact-checking everything. My wife was a huge help there.

AHM: Was there any pressure (personal or otherwise) to refrain from including any overt analysis or opinion based information in the book?

SW: No, my experience is as a movie critic and essayist, not a strict historian, so I actually wanted this to be a book that included my own analysis and opinion along with factual information; although I might indicate what other critics have said about a film or performance, and any facts I employ are footnoted, the feelings in this book about Hitchcock and his work are mine. Hopefully, that personal approach will make it more valuable and entertaining to readers.

I suppose the only pressure I put on myself was to be fair. Hitchcock had several contentious and controversial professional relationships during his decades in Hollywood, first with his producer, David O. Selznick, and then with a few of his female stars, particularly Tippi Hedren. Having read a lot of material on the subject, and talked to some of the people involved, personally I’m convinced that Selznick’s involvement actually made several Hitchcock pictures worse, and that Hitchcock’s treatment of Hedren (and some of his other actresses) was harassment, pure and simple. Still, there are people who defend Selznick, and who disbelieve Hedren. I don’t have any doubts about how I feel, but I still tried to present all the known facts as fairly as I could.

AHM: Were there any articles or subjects that couldn’t be included in the book? How did you make the decision as to what was and wasn’t important?

SW: I’m sure there were topics I missed, or that some people will think I didn’t pay enough attention to. For example, although I cover all the TV shows he directed, I didn’t find them as interesting as the films, and devoted only a few lines to most of them; although I cover major collaborators in depth, I don’t touch on every art designer or bit player. On the other hand, some entries I included because I found them personally interesting, even though their connection to Hitchcock was more tenuous (the writer Graham Greene, say, or the critic Pauline Kael). And others became fascinating to me as I looked into their careers, and the more research I did the more their entries expanded; the life of Canada Lee, for example, who is in Lifeboat, could be its own movie. But I don’t think that anyone who is looking for a major Hitchcock topic – whether it’s Rear Window or Cary Grant – will be disappointed.

AHM: Hitchcock scholars seem to fit into two very different categories. The first category seems to embrace the Donald Spoto version of Alfred Hitchcock’s history, and the other group tends to question his scholarship. It is clear that you fit into the first category, and I was hoping that you might want to discuss this.

SW: I remember when the Spoto biography came out in the ‘80s, and it was pretty strongly attacked by the Hitchcock loyalists; when the movie The Girl appeared recently, based partly on another one of Spoto’s books, those criticisms began again. And I can understand that; honestly, as someone who already admired Hitchcock’s films a great deal, I was put off by Spoto’s book at first, too, because I found these stories about the director to be so disappointing. And I think we’ve seen far too many of these posthumous biographies that rip a dead celebrity to shreds once he or she is no longer around to defend themselves.

But even as some of Spoto’s research has been questioned – for example, a story about Hitchcock tormenting a classmate, and one about him playing a mean joke on his daughter, have both pretty much been disproven – other things have been confirmed, or added to. For example, Patrick McGilligan’s biography stands in opposition to a lot of what Spoto asserted – yet McGilligan also turned up an ugly story Spoto didn’t have, of Hitchcock making a pass at Brigitte Auber, from To Catch a Thief.  And other people – Joan Fontaine and Ann Todd, for example – have independently written about Hitchcock’s sometimes cruel or inappropriate behavior. (For example, Diane Baker told me that, on the Marnie set, not only was it clear that Hitchcock was acting oddly with Hedren, but that he’d come into her dressing room and suddenly kissed her.) So even putting Spoto’s book aside for a moment, there seems to be a pattern to Hitchcock’s behavior, particularly in his later years, even if many people didn’t experience or witness it themselves.

There are certainly plenty of things in the Spoto book which people can question – they happened years ago, we’re often only hearing one person’s side, memories can be faulty. (And, as a longtime journalist, I know that sometimes people are misquoted – and also that sometimes, seeing their quotes accurately repeated in print, some people suddenly have second thoughts and try to deny them.) You can never be sure you’re getting the whole story. But some of this is true of the McGilligan book too, I think, which talks about this vague, quasi-affair Alma Reville is supposed to have had with a screenwriter. It’s true of Patricia Hitchcock’s own book, which portrays an almost too-perfect family and home life (along with her mother’s favorite recipes!) And it’s certainly true of the movie Hitchcock which simply, blatantly made things up. But all in all I think the Spoto book is pretty solid. You can dispute individual things in it, but I feel it’s credible.

Psycho

“I love the sheer audacity of it – the way he sets up, and then deliberately confounds the audience’s narrative expectations at every turn. You like this heroine? Well, she’s dead now…” -Stephen Whitty

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

SW: I was a movie fan from a very early age, but Hitchcock was perhaps the first director I was truly aware of – his show was still on TV when I was very small, and of course he introduced each episode. So I was aware of him as a person and the more I saw his films, the more I became aware of him as an artist – seeing movies like The Birds, and North by Northwest and Psycho and realizing it was the same director behind all of them. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was a real movie buff, and had caught up with his earlier films – and “Hitchcock/Truffaut” and, later, “Hitchcock’s Films” by Robin Wood were enormous influences which I read over and over. The Truffaut book was particularly crucial, because in it Hitchcock really explains why he did something – why he framed something a particular way, the importance of a certain juxtaposition of shots. It’s not just Hitchcock on Hitchcock – it’s Hitchcock on film itself.

AHM: What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and why is this film your favorite?

SW: For the longest time, my favorite film of his was Psycho. I love the sheer audacity of it – the way he sets up, and then deliberately confounds the audience’s narrative expectations at every turn. You like this heroine? Well, she’s dead now. Oh, you’re interested in this private detective? Yes, well we’re going to kill him off, too. Everything – the camera work, the editing, and the music – feels 20 years ahead of its time. Lately, though, I feel myself going back more and more to Vertigo. It’s such a melancholy movie, so wrapped up in disappointment and defeat – I hope it’s not a bad sign that that’s becoming my favorite!

AHM: Do you have a least favorite Hitchcock film? What is it and why don’t you enjoy the film?

SW: I was hoping when I started this book and began re-watching all his movies that I’d have an epiphany, and suddenly reclaim one of his films as a lost masterpiece but, unfortunately, I really can’t. I’d love to say the majority opinion is wrong, but, I’m sorry – Waltzes from Vienna is still a bad movie. So is Topaz. There are always moments, in any Hitchcock movie worth your time – there’s one gorgeous shot in Topaz, when the woman is killed — but I’d say those two are my least favorite of his.

AHM: If you could bring Alfred Hitchcock back to life in order to complete one of his unfinished projects, which of these projects would you have him complete? Why would you choose this particular project?

SW: He himself so yearned to do the J.M. Barrie play “Mary Rose” I’d love to see him do  that, but mostly for his sake; the story doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, personally! But it was a film he wanted to do for decades, so clearly there was something in this story of a magical island that moved him. I’d love to see it and find out what.

AHM: There seems to be a rather unfortunate tendency among critics to assume that because Hitchcock’s films do not seem to have any overt political messages, that these films have nothing to say. I disagree. I think that his films hold a mirror up to mankind’s darker nature while asking some very pertinent questions about it. This can be every bit as important as some topical political theme. What are your thoughts on this?

SW: Well, first of all, I agree with you that his films do have a deeper, darker and perhaps more universal interest than topical concerns. Look at what Psycho is really sardonically saying about motherhood, and our duties to our parents. Or what Vertigo and Notorious reveal about unhealthy relationships. A “good” progressive movie like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? has dated. Shadow of a Doubt never will.

But you know, I also think Hitchcock is political. You examine his films, from at least The 39 Steps on, and you’ll see that the villain is almost always a wealthy, powerful authority figure; the heroes are usually ex-soldiers, teachers, reporters, middle-class professionals. The top spies and traitors in Saboteur are American millionaires who’ve embraced fascism; the hero is a factory worker. In Lifeboat, who are the survivors who are first taken in by the Nazi? The rich. Who are the ones who are suspicious of him? The working class. Who alone refuses to participate in their eventual mob justice? The black man.

And you know personally – quietly – when McCarthyism came, Hitchcock helped blacklisted people out with jobs. Norman Lloyd credited him with giving him back his career by asking him to help produce his TV show. Hitchcock went out of his way to hire other people for that show who’d been having trouble getting work, too, like Paul Henreid. So he wasn’t an obvious progressive in the way, say, Stanley Kramer was, but he was certainly conscious, and concerned.

That doesn’t mean I like Hitchcock because he’s political; I’d love his work even if it weren’t. But to assume that this filmmaker didn’t have a very strong feeling about class and power is a mistake. Just because he was “the Master of Suspense” doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about, and making stories about, a thousand other things.

 AHM: At the risk of cribbing a question from Robin Wood, I feel compelled to ask: Why should people take Hitchcock seriously?

SW: First of all, I think, there’s the filmmaking itself. He really was the consummate director, and a visual genius; perhaps D.W. Griffith gave us film’s essential grammar, but Hitchcock turned it into an entire, sophisticated language. The clarity of his editing, the impact of his composition, and the amount of narrative and thematic detail he was able to pack into a single image – he’s influenced generations and if we’re lucky will influence generations more.

But also, I think his films deal with serious themes. I think there used to be a certain bias in the underestimation of Hitchcock; after all, his best movies were often romantic mysteries, with female leads. How could they possibly be as important as the war movies and Westerns with big male stars directed by Ford and Hawks and Huston?

I love those films too, of course. But I think the fact that Hitchcock’s films weren’t typically macho movies meant that Hollywood, and many male critics, undervalued them for a long time.  And if you really look at his films, you’ll see that they’re about some extraordinarily big issues – guilt, sin, sexuality, trust.

And he himself is fascinating. I mean, I think the real question these days might not be “Why should we take Hitchcock seriously?” but “Which Hitchcock should we take seriously?”  Is it the sexist who victimized women on screen, or the feminist who decried that victimization? Is it the showman who made commercial blockbusters, or the artist who made risky personal films? And the answer to both is – yes. He was a complicated man — and his films are at least as complex as he was.

Vertigo

“It’s such a melancholy movie, so wrapped up in disappointment and defeat – I hope it’s not a bad sign that that’s becoming my favorite!” -Stephen Whitty

Interview by: Devon Powell

[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.]

Book Review: Hidden Hitchcock

Dust Jacket

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press

Release Date: August 1, 2016

“It is my project here to trace a different, more devious rout taken by the surplus scrutiny that Hitchcock mobilizes in us. In contrast to the games that he is known to play with his Pavlovianly [sic] trained mass audience, I postulate a game he would be playing with that absurdly, pointlessly watchful spectator who dwells within us all, but whom, as members of a mass audience, or as critics in loyal alignment with it, we mostly put on lockdown; and whom I call the Too-Close Viewer. In this game, and for this viewer alone, Hitchcock would cultivate, alongside his manifest style with its hyper-legible images, a secret style that sows these images with radical duplicity. The type of duplicity to which this book gives emblematic pride of place is the hidden picture, in which a strongly narrativized [sic] image has been fashioned to conceal something that – if ever seen – would not enhance its coherence, but explode it. Imagine a small continuity error made on purpose, or a Hitchcock cameo fashioned so as not to be seen or a narrative image secretly doubling for a figure of speech in the manner of a charade, and you will have anticipated three key subtypes of Hitchcock’s hidden picturing. I take all such hidden pictures as sporadic but insistent marks of a perverse counter narrative in Hitchcock that for no reason – or for no good enough reason – takes the viewer out of the story and out of the social compact its telling presupposes. Into what is hard to say. Structurally, the hidden pictures resist being integrated into the narrative or any ostensible intentionality; and whatever we might say about any one of them as a species of content falls markedly short of accounting for their enigma as a recurring form of Hitchcock’s film-writing. It is as though, at the heart of the manifest style, there pulsed an irregular extra beat, the surreptitious ‘murmur’ of its undoing that only the Too-Close Viewer could apprehend…” –D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Preview, 2016)

Miller’s thesis sounded somewhat questionable upon reading the first pages of his Preview (or introduction) chapter in Hidden Hitchcock. It felt as if the following chapters would be filled with what could only be over-reaching guess-work written in the wake of too many other questionable theories about Hitchcock’s work. Luckily, this is only partly true. There certainly are a few unseen visual anomalies in Alfred Hitchcock’s work, and there are quite a few of these mentioned in Hidden Hitchcock that are unquestionably present on the screen. (This reviewer spotted some of them before reading Miller’s text.) As a quick example, I call to the reader’s attention a certain hidden cameo that alert viewers can see during the opening train sequence of Strangers on a Train:

“…We are unlikely, therefore, to pay attention to a small detail that emerges at the very moment when the suddenly upraised camera gives Guy and Bruno their first full registration. This is the book that Guy is holding, his train reading; on its back cover is the face of Alfred Hitchcock, who is thus visible, if not actually seen, eight minutes before what we commonly take as his appearance. There is no doubt about it we get several more views of this book—the front cover as well as the back, and the spine too—and though no one has ever noticed it, I did not find it impossible to identify. It is ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense,a collection of mystery stories, published by Simon and Schuster in 1947, that Hitchcock edited, annotated, and prefaced with an essay called ‘The Quality of Suspense…’-D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Hidden Pictures, 2016)

While this discovery wasn’t particularly surprising to this reviewer, having spotted Hitchcock’s appearance on this book several years prior to reading Miller’s thesis, this and a few other examples validate the possibility that some of his other discoveries could be legitimate as well. (There wasn’t time to go through the films discussed and analyze each one.) However, some of his theories as to what these Hitchcock appearances, continuity errors, and narrative images (or “charades”) actually mean could easily be disputed. The nature of film theory is that it is and will always remain theory. As a matter of fact, some of Miller’s discoveries cannot be proven to be intentional decisions made by Hitchcock. Certain continuity errors that have been brought to the reader’s attention might very easily be errors (every film has them).

It is particularly interesting that Miller has narrowed his focus to merely a handful of moments that can be found in three of the director’s films (with the exception of a moment in Murder that was analyzed in the Preview chapter):

“…Accordingly, I am at liberty to worship him in any of his fifty-two manifestations; there simply are no wrong choices. And yet, while forms of hidden picturing are lying all over the place in Hitchcock, the impetus for wanting to write on them came almost entirely from the three films I treat in this book: Strangers on a Train, Rope, and The Wrong Man. Why these films and not others? To anyone not myself, who was galvanized by it, my archive must appear, if not exactly marginal, a bit “off,” drawing on Hitchcock’s greatest period (the long 50s) by stopping just before Vertigo and the other universally acknowledged masterpieces in its wake… These films seemed to choose me; by whatever fatal attraction, they alone laid the traps I fell into with the sufficiently catalyzing thud.” –D.A. Miller (Hidden Hitchcock, Preview, 2016)

It is nice that Miller has chosen to focus on three films that deserve more attention, and this is especially true of The Wrong Man. Too little is written about this underappreciated film, and it is nice to that Miller has seen fit to include it here. There is a particular scene in this film that I look forward to reviewing in order to test one of Miller’s discoveries. It might not be essential reading for casual film viewers, but Hidden Hitchcock has the power to inspire further (and closer) viewing of Hitchcock’s work, and it is certainly worth recommending to scholars and fans for this reason alone.

Review by: Devon Powell

 

 

 

Blu-ray Repackaging: Psycho & The Birds

PSYCHO - POPART

Distributor: Universal

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The 50th Anniversary Edition of Psycho (1960) was one of the first reviews posted on this site. This exact same transfer is being released with the same supplemental features in this new Pop Art edition of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: Psycho – 50th Anniversary Edition

THE BIRDS - POPART

Distributor: Universal

Release Date: July 12, 2016

The Birds (1963) is also being honored with a new Pop Art edition of the film that includes the same transfer with the same supplemental features available on Universal’s previous release of the film.

For more a detailed review of this disc:

Blu-ray Review: The Birds

Blu-ray Review: Classic Hitchcock – The Criterion Collection

Boxed Set

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: December 15, 2015

Region: Region A

Notes: Our source at Criterion tells us that this Boxed Set will likely only be available for a very limited time. However, these titles are also available individually on both Blu-ray and DVD.

The Criterion Collection has packaged their currently available Hitchcock titles into a boxed-set called Classic Hitchcock. The set contains the following Criterion titles with the same packaging, supplements, and transfers as their respective individual releases:

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934):

Blu-ray Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much – The Criterion Collection

The 39 Steps (1935):

Blu-ray Review: The 39 Steps – The Criterion Collection

The Lady Vanishes (1938):

Blu-ray Review: The Lady Vanishes – The Criterion Collection

Foreign Correspondent (1940):

Blu-ray Review: Foreign Correspondent – The Criterion Collection

(Please click the links to read complete reviews of each of these titles.)

Final Words:

Those who have not already purchased any of these Criterion titles will find that this boxed set saves them quite a bit of money.

Review by: Devon Powell

Blu-ray Review: The 39 Steps – The Criterion Collection

Spine # 56

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: June 26, 2012

Region: Region A

Length: 01:26:45

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English LPCM Mono (48 kHz, 1152 kbps)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.34:1

Bitrate: 34.98 Mbps

Notes: Criterion also released a DVD edition of this title. There are probably a few public domain discs that are available, but these should be avoided (the quality is terrible).

Title

“What I liked about Thirty-Nine Steps were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity… If I did The Thirty-Nine Steps again, I would stick to that formula, but it really takes a lot of work. You have to use one idea after another, and with such rapidity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Peter Bogdanovich, 1963)

The film moves so rapidly that it is actually rather difficult to discuss The 39 Steps in the same manner that one might discuss other Hitchcock films. The film seems void of any real substance after a mere casual viewing. However, the film has more going on than many critics believe. Even Hitchcock’s MacGuffin isn’t as empty as people often claim. Mark Glancy discusses this in “The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide” while providing a context for both the film, and its MacGuffin.

“One key of updating the story was to change the object of the spies’ pursuit. In the novel, The Black Stone seeks the plans for the disposition of the British fleet in the event of war, which was a matter of great strategic importance in 1914. In the interwar years, however, the significance of naval power steadily waned, particularly in the minds of the general public. The next war, it was predicted, would be fought in the air, and the country with the greatest air force would be capable of a quick and decisive victory. It was assumed that the war would begin with a surprise attack from the air, and that this would result in the mass slaughter of civilians. Thus, in the film the spies seek the plans for a silent airplane engine rather than naval plans. This was not only timely and topical in 1935, but also a pointed reference to Germany. When the screenplay was written in the autumn of 1934, Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany for nearly two years, and the Nazis already had achieved a significant degree of infamy… Winston Churchill warned from the backbenches that Germany was developing its own air force at a faster rate. At a time when radar did not yet exist, this seemed a catastrophic scenario. Indeed, the concept of the silent airplane engine lends further credence to an already often heard yet very disturbing phrase of the times, ‘the bomber will always get through.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The pending war was an unspoken character of the film, and this plays into one of the underlying themes. Hitchcock has always challenged people’s tendency towards complacency, and in The 39 Steps, this actually takes on a political meaning that is an extension of the subject matter introduced by the film’s MacGuffin.

“…At nearly every stop on Hannay’s cross-country journey we find complacency and venality. It is a vision of a country without confidence, unity or purpose.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

While Hitchcock is never politically explicit, there does seem to be a lot going on under the surface of what is otherwise an extremely enjoyable chase film. Hitchcock was working for Gaumont-British Studios, which was the most prestigious studio in Britain at the time. Michael Balcon had brought Alfred Hitchcock to the studio at a low point in his career, but he gave the director freedom to choose and develop his projects in any manner that he saw fit. This freedom paid off for both the studio and Alfred Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much was a modest hit, but the studio squandered most of its potential by putting it on the second half of a double bill. The film’s B-movie status was the result of C.M. Woolf, the film’s distributor (but this is another story). Fortunately, the production breathed life into Hitchcock’s creative mojo.

“…When The Man Who Knew Too Much was completed in October, 1934, they thought of adapting Buchan’s ‘Greenmantle’ (the second of the Richard Hannay Stories) next. ‘Greenmantle’ involved adventures that were spread across all of Europe and into the Middle East, though, and so it was probably considered too expensive to mount. Hitchcock later said that The Thirty-Nine Steps was chosen instead because it was a ‘smaller subject.’ It certainly proved to be a subject that could be quickly made. Work on the script began in November 1934, filming began two months later and the film was released in June 1935.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Hitchcock often claimed Buchan had “a strong influence” on his work, but this didn’t mean that he had any undue reverence for the source material.

“I had been wanting to turn John Buchan’s novel into a film for over fifteen years. I first read the book round about 1919 or 1920, a long time before I started my directing career. I said that if I ever became a director I would make a picture of it. It was, therefore, on my suggestion that Gaumont-British decided to make the film so many years later. I hadn’t read the book in the meantime. When I did so, with an eye to turning it into a film, I received a shock. I had learned a lot about filmmaking in the fifteen odd years that had elapsed. Though I could still see the reason for my first enthusiasm—the book was full of action—I found that the story as it stood was not in the least suitable for screening.

So many of the scenes, which were convincing enough in print, would have looked unbelievable on the screen—as, for instance, when Hannay saw a motor car approaching; realized that he would be captured if it reached him and he were spotted; saw some stone-breakers, and in a minute or two had disguised himself as one of these workmen. Dressed up in Buchan’s powerful art of description you could believe that in the book; but you wouldn’t if you saw it in a picture. The novel had Hannay running away from spies. For screen purposes I deemed it better to have him escaping from the police and searching for the spies so that he could clear his own name.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s chief collaborator on the film was Charles Bennett (if one ignores Alma, which is usually the case), and he shared Hitchcock’s opinion of Buchan’s original novel.

“…So at Hitch’s request, I joined GB in 1933 and began dramatizing John Buchan’s book, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” No easy task, as it wasn’t really a filmable story. The story contained just one good basic plot point—the double chase—an innocent man accused of murder, on the run with both the police and the ‘heavies’ out to get him. But the book lacked incident, it hadn’t a woman in it—neither the Madeline Carroll character nor Peggy Ashcroft’s character as the crofter’s wife. And practically every twist of events was based on an unlikely coincidence. By the end of my work on it, the entire construction was mine, with a lot of wonderful dialogue written by Ian Hay, a British playwright who later became the director of public relations at the British War Office.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

Hitchcock’s tendency to gloss over the input of his writers pales in comparison with Bennett’s attempts at hogging credit.

“…In those early days the allocation of credits was up to the producer, and things got awfully messed up when a ‘name’ writer who had done practically nothing got the main credit—whereas the guy who really had done the job but was less well known got practically nothing. Along this line, Alma Hitchcock received credits she did not deserve.” – Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense, 2014)

This is complete nonsense. The script was a collaborative effort, both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock deserve an equal amount of credit. We admit that the contributions of Charles Bennett have been overlooked, but to claim that Alma’s credit was undeserved is ridiculous. The truth is that she deserved more credit than she received. Ivor Montagu’s recollections were probably more accurate.

“The story conferences were a feast of fancy and dialectic, a mixture of composing crosswords and solving them, both laced with humour. We would sit around his flat. Sometimes Alma would be there, sometimes the scenario editor Angus MacPhail… The unfolding was elaborated with suggestions from all of us; everything was welcomed if not always agreed. In the end the scripts were by consensus; the only special privilege their credited authors had was to write them down. The scenes were of course finalized by Hitchcock and his verbal texts then duplicated from the writers’ notes. [Michael Balcon] never interfered. He simply created the conditions and confidence for us to work.” –Ivor Montagu (Sight and Sound, Working With Hitchcock, 1980)

During his infamous interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock elaborated on the process while giving an especially amusing account as to the origins of the Crofter sequence.

“…The method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue. I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through one episode, I remember saying, ‘Here we need another short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.

Anyway, despite my admiration for John Buchan, there are several things in the picture that are not in the book. For instance, the scene in the film in which Robert Donat spends the night with the farmer and his wife was inspired by an old story about a South African Boer, a black-bearded ma, very austere, with a very young, sex-starved wife. On his birthday she kills a chicken and bakes a chicken pie. It’s a very stormy night and she hopes that her husband will be pleased with her surprise. All she gets for her pains is an angry husband, who berates her for killing the chicken without his permission. Hence, a grim birthday celebration. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door, and there stands a handsome stranger who has lost his way and requests a night’s hospitality. The woman invites him to sit down and offers him some food, but the farmer, feeling he’s eating too much, stops him and says, ‘Hold on, there. This has got to last us the rest of the week.’

The woman is hungrily eyeing the stranger, wondering how she can get to bed with him. The husband suggests that they put him out in the barn, but the woman objects. Finally, the three of them go to sleep in the great big bed, with the farmer in the middle. The woman is trying to find some way to get rid of her husband, and finally, hearing a noise, she wakes him, saying, ‘I think the chickens are out of the coop.” The husband goes out to the yard, and the woman shakes the stranger awake, saying, ‘Come on. Now’s your chance.’ So the stranger gets out of bed and quickly gulps down the rest of the chicken pie.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Interestingly, the writing team borrowed inspiration from real life as well. One example was a throwback to the days when Hitchcock would attend London’s music halls:

“There was also another interesting character in the film, Mr. Memory. He’s based on a true-life music-hall personality called Datas. The audience would ask him questions about major events, like: ‘when did the Titanic sink?’ and he would give the correct answer…

…The whole idea is that the man is doomed by his sense of duty. Mr. Memory knows what the thirty-nine steps are, and when he is asked the question, he is compelled to give the answer. The schoolteacher in The Birds dies for the same reason.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Michael Balcon was impressed with the resulting script, and gave the film priority status at Gaumont-British. This would be evidenced by the film’s casting. Originally, the part of Pamela was given to Jane Baxter. She was offered £500 to perform in the film, but this never came to pass. Instead, it was decided that they should cast a much more popular actress in the role. Madeline Carroll suited the film’s needs perfectly, and her £5,000 salary was well worth the bite that it took out of the film’s final £58,449 budget.

It is strange how very well Madeleine fitted into the part. I had heard a lot about her as a tall, cold, blonde beauty, dignified and all that. Not exactly… The real type for a boisterous role or where intense activity would give little chance for draping herself round the furniture and what not. You see, I had seldom seen her on the screen, because I very rarely take a busman’s holiday. I knew only her photographs. Calm and serene barely describes them! They were certainly beautiful, but so very cold. My word, they would almost chill a refrigerator! …

…Why is it that actors and actresses are almost invariably cast exactly to type? In her case her obvious good looks had nearly been her downfall. It is very hard with merely the material of good looks to create a character, especially when they are completely devitalized by absence of action…

…After meeting her, I made up my mind to present her to the public as her natural self. You see what I mean? In The 39 Steps the public is seeing a Madeleine Carroll who has no time to be calm and serene. She is far too busy racing over moors, rushing up and down embankments, and scrambling over rocks.”–Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Norah Baring, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Madeline Carroll

Madeline Carroll is considered by many to be the prototypical “Hitchcock Blonde.” Others give this honor to Anny Ondra.

Carroll’s appearance along with Robert Donat made the international success of the film possible. These two stars gave the film an A-picture respectability that Hitchcock had never enjoyed on an international level prior to this production.

“I could not have wished for a better Hannay than Robert Donat. One of the chief reasons for his success—in addition, of course, to his natural looks, charm, and personality—is the good theatrical training he has behind him. He is blazingly ambitious but difficult to satisfy. He is a queer combination of determination and uncertainty. He is determined to do only pictures that satisfy him. He will be enthusiastic about an idea, then suddenly discard it completely. These are qualities of temperament that only a great actor like Donat can enjoy.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Certain members of the film’s supporting cast are also noteworthy. This is especially true of Peggy Ashcroft’s portrayal of the crofter’s wife. Ashcroft’s name would have carried a certain amount of weight in England at the time (especially to anyone that attended the theatre). Hitchcock often made it a point to mention her in his articles and interviews with the press while promoting the film.

“I should like to mention Peggy Ashcroft’s appearance as the crofter’s wife in The 39 Steps. It was brief but significant, especially when you consider that this was only her second film role. I am convinced that this delightful Juliet of John Gielgud’s Romeo and Juliet has a brilliant career in front of her. The greatest thing about her is her extreme simplicity.” –Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock’s status as a practical joker has long been a favorite subject of anyone interested in his films, and his reported antics during the production of The 39 Steps are certainly noteworthy. Robert Donat recalled an infamous incident that has long been discussed and written about.

“On our first morning at the studio, immediately after being introduced, we were shackled in a pair of handcuffs, each have one hand imprisoned, and commenced to act a scene. Such a start was not exactly helpful in establishing relations, we thought, and these feelings were not lessened when, at the conclusion of the scene, ‘Hitch’ lost the key of the handcuffs! For nearly an hour Madeleine and I shared this enforced companionship, while the hunt for the key was sustained. There was nothing else to do, so we talked of our mutual friends, of our ambitions, and of film matters generally. Gradually our reserve thawed as we exchange experiences. When ‘Hitch’ saw that we were getting along famously, he extract the ‘missing’ key from his waistcoat pocket, released us, and said, with a satisfied grin, ‘Now that you two know each other we can go ahead.’ Had it not been for Hitchcock’s little ruse, Madeleine and I would probably have taken quite a time to ‘get together’ — to the detriment of our work in the interim.-Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

There was method in this madness. Hitchcock’s behavior was his sly way of getting a particular kind of performance from his actors. Of course, this is less interesting than blaming a penchant for sadistic behavior 9or some sort of malicious chauvinism), but it makes much more sense. This is especially true when one considers that Donat was probably subjected to more pranks than Carol.

“It was in that picture, too, that I pulled [another] gag on Donat. He complained that the waterfall scene had ruined his clothes. The ruining of actors’ clothes and the demand that the company should replace them is a long standing bone which actors and directors pick amiably enough during production.

When Robert demanded a new suit, I gave him one out of my own pocket. I sent round for a 14s. Child’s suit from a neighborhood cheap store…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Of course, this particular prank seems to be an attempt at humbling what Hitchcock must have considered an overly haughty temperament. Whatever the case, these things are purposely often blown out of proportion for publicity purposes. It is a fact that Gaumont-British used exaggerated versions of these in their publicity materials for the film. It is difficult to know just which version of these stories to believe (if any).

Actually, it seems that the publicity machine worked overtime during the release of The 39 Steps.

“Gaumont-British was confident that The 39 Steps would be a great box-office success in Britain. Michael Balcon, eager to raise the profile of Gaumont-British as a production company, urged that the company’s name should be featured prominently in the advertising, on the grounds that ‘it may be a long time before we have another chance like this.’ In the week of the film’s release, four consecutive pages of advertisements were taken out in the British trade paper Kinematograph Weekly. One page was usual for a new film, two indicated an important release, but a four page spread signaled a cinematic event. Perhaps most telling, The 39 Steps was booked to run at the New Gallery Theatre for a full five weeks. The New Gallery had 1,400 seats, and films tended to spend no more than two or three weeks in such a large venue, but even the five-week engagement proved to be an underestimation of the film’s popularity. Fueled by enthusiastic reviews, The 39 Steps was still going strong at the end of its fifth week. The New Gallery had another booking and so The 39 Steps moved to the similarly capacious Marble Arch Pavillion, where it lasted no fewer than eight weeks… It had spent sixteen weeks in some of the West End’s largest venues, a record surpassed that year only by the Hollywood epic, Lives of a Bengal Lancer.

At the time, it was usual for important releases to be shown first in London’s West End, and have an exclusive run at advanced admission prices, before being released anywhere else. Hence, The 39 Steps didn’t play anywhere apart from the West End until the autumn of 1935 when it began to make its way around Britain. It then followed the standard release pattern of playing first in major cities and in regional capitols such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Cardiff, and then moving on to smaller cities, provincial towns and local theatres.” –Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

The film was a sensation. It received the same enthusiasm everywhere that it was shown in Britain (and it was shown nearly everywhere). It was also a sensation in Canada, and brought respectable business in the United States and other territories. As a matter of fact, the film is responsible for building Hitchcock’s positive reputation in Hollywood.

Of course, the film’s critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. C. A. Lejeune’s review in The Observer is a prime example. She was especially enthusiastic about Robert Donat’s star potential.

“Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order … He strikes … an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good. Mr. Hitchcock is certainly conscious of it, and exploits his new star material with all the easy confidence of a local Van Dyke or Capra.” – C. A. Lejeune (The Observer as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Sydney Carroll’s review in the Sunday Times preferred to focus his praise on Alfred Hitchcock.

“Every film of real quality bears the unforgettable stamp of its creator. Individuality is a rare and precious thing. In moving pictures it is exceptionally hard to discover. When it is there, however, it usually assumes a force and distinction unmistakably attributable to its director, and to its director alone. In The 39 Steps, the identity and mind of Alfred Hitchcock are continuously discernible, in fact supreme. Hitchcock is a genius.” –Sydney Carroll (Sunday Times as reprinted in The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide)

Variety published another positive review that spoke generally about the film.

“Gaumont has a zippy, punchy, romantic melodrama in The 39 Steps. Story is by John Buchan. It’s melodrama and at times far-fetched and improbable, but the story twists and spins artfully from one high-powered sequence to another while the entertainment holds like steel cable from start to finish…

…It’s a creamy role for Donat and his performance, ranging from humor to horror, reveals acting ability behind that good-looking facade. Teamed with Madeleine Carroll, who enters the footage importantly only toward the latter quarter section of the film, the romance is given a light touch which nicely colors an international spy chase.” -Variety (December 31, 1934)

The review published in The Times was written with the same pretentious pomposity that one might expect from the publication, but it remains overwhelmingly positive.

“Readers may not find it easy to relate the Richard Hannay they knew in the novel to the humorous happy-go-lucky adventurer who goes by the same name in this film, but they are bound to condone the freedom of an adaptation which has produced such excellent results.

Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of the story gives us a first rate film of adventure edged with comedy; what in the theatre would be called a ‘comedy thriller.’ Its climax verges upon ingenuity of the kind that we resent, but by the time that it has been reached we have been much too, well entertained to think of resenting it. For the greater part of the film the ingenuity never fails to justify itself pictorially, and Mr. Robert Donat, who plays the amateur hunter of spies, and Miss Madeleine Carroll, as his unwilling companion in misfortune, know how to get the last ounce of excitement from an adventure approached humorously.

The sequence, in which Hannay shelters the woman spy in his London flat and falls under suspicion of having murdered her, is perhaps a little chilly in its conventionality, but once the double chase has begun, once the police get on Hannay’s track, and he gets on the track of the master spy, Mr. Hitchcock takes and keeps a firm and highly individual grip of the story. The camera makes extraordinarily effective play with the police search of the Scotch express and with Hannay’s escape among the girders of the Forth Bridge. In the Highlands it turns to account not only the rocks and waterfalls but the stillness of the hill recesses, and the episode of the avaricious crofter and his romantic wife, skilfully presented by Mr. John Laurie and Miss Peggy Ashcroft, is a genuine point of rest which enhances the excitement of the chase. Mr. Godfrey Tearle gives us the politeness and the ruthlessness of the chief spy; Mr. Frank Cellier the self-satisfaction of the sheriff who is too clever to perceive the truth when it is told to him; and Mr. Wylie Watson the comically mechanical make-up of the music hall memorizer through whom the Air Ministry’s secrets are passed to the head of the Thirty-Nine Steps.” -The Times (June 06, 1935)

This incredibly positive review published in Harrison’s Reports gave Hitchcock a compliment that he rarely received when it used the word “logically.”

“Very good entertainment. It is a combination murder mystery-spy melodrama, with fast melodramatic action, comedy and romance throughout; it holds the attention well, keeping the spectator in suspense. The plot is worked out logically with a particularly ingenious ending in which the villain is trapped. The thrills are engendered by the many attempts the hero makes to escape from the police, who were trying to arrest him for a murder he had not committed. Besides being exciting these situations provoke comedy because of the means the hero uses to gain his freedom. Equally exciting and amusing are the situations in which the heroine is handcuffed to the hero and is forced to do his bidding. The production and acting are goo…

…Because of the murder it is unsuitable for children or adolescents. It is very good adult entertainment.” -Harrison’s Reports (June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald’s review for the New York Times is a virtual love letter to Alfred Hitchcock.

“Alfred Hitchcock, the gifted English screen director, has made one of the fascinating pictures of the year in The Thirty-nine Steps, his new film at the Roxy Theatre. If the work has any single rival as the most original, literate and entertaining melodrama of 1935, then it must be The Man Who Knew Too Much, which is also out of Hitchcock’s workshop. A master of shock and suspense, of cold horror and slyly incongruous wit, he uses his camera the way a painter uses his brush, stylizing history and giving it values which the scenarists could hardly have suspected. By comparison with the sinister delicacy and urbane understatement of The Thirty-nine Steps, the best of our melodramas seem crude and brawling.

If you can imagine Anatole France writing a detective story you will have some notion of the artistry that Hitchcock brings to this screen version of John Buchan’s novel. Like The Man Who Knew Too Much, the photoplay immerses a quite normal human being in an incredible dilemma where his life is suddenly at stake and his enemies are mysterious, cruel and disparate… Hitchcock describes the remarkable chain of events in Hannay’s flight across England and Scotland with a blend of unexpected comedy and breathless terror that is strikingly effective.

Perhaps the identifying hallmark of his method is apparent absence of accent in the climaxes, which are upon the spectator like a slap in the face before he has set himself for the blow. In such episodes as the murder of the woman in Hannay’s apartment, the icy ferocity of the man with the missing finger when he casually shoots Hannay, or the brilliantly managed sequences on the train, the action progresses through seeming indifference to whip-like revelations. There is a subtle feeling of menace on the screen all the time in Hitchcock’s low-slung, angled use of the camera. But the participants, both Hannay and his pursuers, move with a repressed excitement that adds significance to every detail of their behavior.

Robert Donat as the suavely desperate hero of the adventure is excellent both in the comic and the tragic phases of his plight. The lovely Madeleine Carroll, who begins by betraying him and believes his story when it is almost too late, is charming and skillful. All the players preserve that sureness of mood and that understanding of the director’s intention which distinguished The Man Who Knew Too Much. There are especially fine performances by John Laurie as the treacherous Scot who harbors the fugitive, Peggy Ashcroft as his sympathetic wife, Godfrey Tearle as the man with the missing finger, and Wylie Watson as the memory expert of the music halls, who proves to be the hub of the mystery.” -Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Time magazine’s review added its voice to the chorus of praise as well.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Gaumont-British) neatly converts its essential implausibility into an asset by stressing the difficulties which confront its hero when he tries to tell outsiders about the predicament he is in. A young Canadian named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), he finds himself one evening, as the result of nothing more daring than a visit to a London music hall, entertaining in his flat a girl who tells him that she is a counter-espionage agent protecting England from an international ring which is selling the secrets of the Air Ministry and that she has just committed a murder. Hannay considers this nonsense until the next morning, when he finds his guest dying with a knife in her back. Thus assured of her veracity, he constitutes himself heir to her quest and with the meagre information she has given him sets out to solve the riddle of the Thirty-Nine Steps.

Harried by the police, who suspect him of murdering the counterspy, by the members of the ring, who soon find out that he is on their trail, and by a charming young lady (Madeleine Carroll) whom he picks up in the course of a wild night on the Scottish moors, Hannay plunges through a series of hairbreadth escapes and escapades, some of them horrifying, some of them extraordinarily funny. The funniest, possibly, is the one in which, mistaken at a political meeting for the speaker of the evening, he makes himself the hero of the occasion by an address composed of foolish generalities. The most exciting is that which brings the story back to its starting point in the music hall, where a final pistol shot punctures the mystery permanently.

In the last two years, by making a specialty of melodrama, the English cinema industry sometimes appears to have taken its motto from the words of a song popular in the U.S. a year ago. ‘Here Come the British with a Bang, Bang.’ The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most effective demonstration to date of Director Alfred Hitchcock’s method of artful understatement and its success, which has already been sensational abroad, should be a lesson to his Hollywood imitators. The film is an adaptation of a novel written 20 years ago by John Buchan, now Lord Tweedsmuir, who next month will go to Canada as that Dominion’s Governor-General (TIME, Aug. 19). This high-placed connection made it possible for the British film industry to improve notably upon Hollywood methods of ballyhoo. The premiere of The Thirty-Nine Steps in London was preceded, not by a mere broadcast, but by a Gaumont-British banquet at which the guests of honour were Lord Tweedsmuir, Home Secretary Sir John Simon, Minister for Air Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister and their ladies.” –Time (Sept. 23, 1935)

It is easy for contemporary audiences to forget that The 39 Steps was the benchmark from which future Hitchcock films were judged for many years. (This lasted well into the director’s American career.) Today, it is too often ignored in favor of the director’s American work. This is unfortunate, because it is impossible to accurately examine Hitchcock’s creative evolution without examining his British thrillers.

Screenshot 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Blu-ray disc is housed in the clear case that has become the standard for The Criterion Collection. The film related artwork isn’t among Criterion’s best designs, but it is reasonably attractive.

Fans of the film will be especially pleased to find an illustrated booklet featuring an essay entitled “Thirty-Nine Steps to Happiness” by David Cairns and information about the film’s transfer.

The disc’s menus utilize the iconic image of Hannay silencing Pamela under a bridge, and the film’s score accompanies the image.

menu1

It is an elegant menu that is quite easy to navigate.

Screenshot 3.jpg

Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion’s booklet details their high definition transfer in more depth than any review might hope to discuss it:

“This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35m fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image Systems’ DVNR was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.”

The result is an image that is less than perfect, but superior to other transfers of the film by quite some margin (at least to those available in North America). Criterion’s decision to place the film on a dual-layer disc has resulted into a film with less compression than one might expect with most Blu-ray releases. There is a nice layer of film grain lending an organic quality to the image that one expects from films made during this era. Detail is reasonably impressive and contrast is beautifully rendered as well. This may not be Criterion’s best image transfer, but it is much better than the film has received elsewhere.

Screenshot 4.jpg

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Criterion discusses their sound transfer in detail as well:

“The original monaural soundtrack was re-mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”

The result is a relatively clean sound transfer that features clear dialogue that isn’t buried beneath layers of noise and hiss. It is a rare moment when extremely light hiss makes itself heard, and these moments never become distracting. The dynamic range is rather limited, but this is to be expected with films of this era. There aren’t many (if any) distortions at the high end, nor are there any annoying dropouts to distract from one’s enjoyment of the film.

Screenshot 5.jpg

Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Marian Keane

This scholarly commentary by Marian Keane was featured on Criterion’s 1998 Criterion DVD of the film, so those who owned this edition of the film will know what to expect. Some of her theoretical insights sometimes seem a bit overreaching, and her delivery is certainly on the dry side. One wonder’s if her insights might have been more digestible in the video essay format. However, the track is quite informative and Keane’s discussion is rather articulate. Hitchcock fans should find the track well worth their time.

Hitchcock: The Early Years – (1080I) – (24:07)

This slightly dry British documentary covers Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-war career (or what is more often referred to as his British period). It features interviews with John Kennedy Melling (crime historian), Charles Barr (film historian/scholar), Hugh Stewart (film editor, The Man Who Knew Too Much), Teddy Joseph (third assistant director, Sabotage), Roy Ward Baker (second assistant director, The Lady Vanishes), and is narrated by David Bond. The bulk of this short retrospective is made up of clips from the director’s British filmography.

Those who have not yet discovered Alfred Hitchcock’s early British work should find this particular piece fascinating and informative, but those who have already familiarized themselves with these films might hope for something a bit more comprehensive.

Cinema: Alfred Hitchcock – (1080I) – (40:14)

Mike Scott’s excellent interview was produced in 1966 for British television. The original edited program has been lost, but the raw footage has been compiled and presented here. Many will consider this to be the highlight of the disc’s supplemental offerings. Any interview with Hitchcock is an amusing and educational experience, and this particular interview is no exception. The director discusses various areas of his career, but it is especially interesting to hear him talk about his early days in the British film industry.

The Borders of the Possible – (1080I) – (23:59)

Leonard Leff’s visual essay is an illustrated look at this adaptation of John Buchan’s famous novel and the development of Alfred Hitchcock’s style. The program is enhanced by extracts from the director’s interview with François Truffaut, film stills, artwork, and footage from The 39 Steps.

Excerpt from Truffaut/Hitchcock Interviews – (1080P) – (22:16)

Those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview will find this audio interview familiar. Helen G. Scott’s interpretation of both the questions and the answers might become tiresome for certain listeners, but the conversation itself is extremely interesting. This is a historical conversation between two cinematic giants, and most cinemaphiles will find it fascinating. A photo of the two great filmmakers (taken at the time of the interview) fills the screen throughout the length of this audio feature.

Original Production Design Drawings – (1080P)

Oscar Friedrich Werndorff’s production sketches for the film are presented here along with production photographs in slide show form. One can compare the original drawings with the finished sets.

Lux Radio Theatre Presents “The 39 Steps” – (59:52)

Lux Radio Theatre’s 1937 audio production of The 39 Steps starred Robert Montgomery and Ida Lupino in the leading roles. This adaptation borrowed ore heavily from the film than from Buchan’s original novel. It is interesting to hear other actors in the roles made famous by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

Screenshot 6

Final Words:

Those who have read “The Catcher in the Rye” will remember that this film was Phoebe Caulfield’s favorite film:

“Her favorite is The 39 Steps, though, with Robert Donat. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Phoebe’ll say right out loud in the movie–right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it–“Can you eat the herring?” She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it–she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.” J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

It must be said that this ten year old has fabulous taste. There is so much to love here, and if J.D Salinger recommends the film, why shouldn’t we? It is such a fun ride, and Criterion’s Blu-ray release gives us plenty of supplemental material to enhance our experience.

Review by: Devon Powell

The Criterion Collection’s The 39 Steps page:

https://www.criterion.com/films/234-the-39-steps

Bridge.jpg

Source Material:

John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps, 1915)

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1934)

Staff Writer (The Times, June 06, 1935)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, June 29, 1935)

Andre Sennwald (New York Times, September 14, 1935)

Staff Writer (Time, Sept. 23, 1935)

Norah Baring (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Film Pictorial, November 23, 1935)

Alfred Hitchcock (My Screen Memories, Film Weekly, May 02-30, 1936)

Alfred Hitchcock (Life Among the Stars, News Chronicle, March 01-05, 1937)

Robert Donat (The Courier Mail, June 23, 1938)

J.D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye, 1951)

Peter Bogdanovich (Interview with Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Ivor Montagu (Working With Hitchcock, Sight and Sound, 1980)

Mark Glancy (The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide, January 01, 2002)

Charles Bennett (Hitchcock’s Partner in Suspense: The Life of Screenwriter Charles Bennett, May 02, 2014)

Blu-ray Review: Suspicion

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor:  Warner Bros.  

Release Date: April 12, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 1:39:24

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4 AVC)

Main Audio: Mono DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

Mono French Dolby Digital

Mono Spanish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.36:1

Notes: A DVD edition of this film is also available.

Title

Alfred Hitchcock had difficulty coming up with a suitable title for the film and was never happy with “Suspicion.” He considered it “cheap and dull,” and he proposed “Johnnie” in desperation after the studio forced the final title upon him.

“I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous. Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s at­tention had to be focused on that glass.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed discussing this particular lighting effect, his disappointment with Suspicion was always more than a little evident when he spoke about it in interviews. He thought the film “too glossy” and felt that it was compromised by the suits at RKO. While the director’s unfortunate habit of adopting the overall critical opinion about his work often leads scholarship astray, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. After all, the critical consensus was rather positive. The film even earned three Academy Awards nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), and Best Score (Franz Waxman), and Joan Fontaine took home the Oscar for Best Actress. In light of this information, it seems safe to assume that his disappointment is the result of creative compromise.

The reasons behind Suspicion’s troubled production are quite complex, but it is important to understand the studio climate that produced the film.

“At the eleventh hour, Edington, who had become a scapegoat for RKO’s downward spiral, was fired by studio president George Schaefer. Dan Winkler was also discharged, and with that the two men who had signed Hitchcock [and gave the director his creative freedom] were gone. Then, against all common sense, Schaefer hired none other than the lord high censor of the Production Code, Joseph Breen, as RKO’s temporary production boss. If Hitchcock had ever hoped to release ‘Before the Fact’ with an ending that faintly resembled the original, that hope now vanished.”Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

 It is difficult to imagine how any film made under these circumstances could achieve the enormous success that Suspicion proved to achieve, but it is worth questioning whether or not the film was admired because of its resemblance to Rebecca (which also enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful release). Both films starred Joan Fontaine in similar roles, and both films were what Hitchcock called “British films made in Hollywood.” 

“…The actors, the atmosphere, and the novel on which it’s based were all British. The screenwriter was Samson Raphaelson, who’d worked on the early talking pictures of Ernst Lubitsch.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966) 

Of course, Raphaelson came into the picture rather late in the process. Alfred Hitchcock had already been working out the story details with Alma Hitchcock and Joan Harrison. These two invaluable collaborators “batted ideas back and forth with Hitchcock” until the threesome had worked out a treatment outline for the film. Most of the story details were already in place before Raphaelson came aboard (which was often the case with Hitchcock’s screenwriters).

Of course, Raphaelson usually told a very different story.

“Raphaelson recalled that the Reville-Harrison treatment as incomplete, with ‘dummy’ dialogue, and rather ‘long-winded’ at that. Its main accomplishment was in pairing down the book’s characters and subplots. (In the novel, both the cad of a husband and the wife-victim have extra lovers, who would eventually be excised as a sop to censors.) Right off, Raphaelson told Hitchcock that the treatment ‘didn’t agree at all with the way I would get at it [the film],’ and asked if he could try his own ideas, adding, ‘If you don’t like what I write, we’ll fight it out.’ To his surprise, Hitchcock—almost matter-of-factly—said yes.

‘That story broke more easily for me than anything I have ever written,’ Raphaelson reflected years later. ‘Everything I brought to him [Hitchcock], he’d read instantly and it was fine.”Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

It is really no wonder that the story broke so easily, because he used the treatment that had already been completed. It probably isn’t fair to say that Raphaelson is lying, but he is liberally glossing over the contributions of other participants. He certainly made contributions (especially regarding the dialogue), but the shape of the film had already been worked out—or most of it had already been worked out. The team had trouble with the ending from the get-go. Besides, evidence suggests that Hitchcock was more than just a little involved with the writing of the screenplay.

It would be ridiculous to go through the treatments and the various screenplay drafts in an attempt to assign credit for each individual contribution, but looking at these documents do indicate that Raphaelson’s memories were self-serving. (Unless the writer was suffering from senility.) In fact, the team had a few other sources to inspire and guide them, and these sources are rarely given any attention.

“Hitchcock and his writing team appear to have drawn upon a pair of scripts written for RKO in 1939 and 1940 by screenwriters Arnaud d’Usseau and Boris Ingster, and the novelist, Nathanael West. RKO had targeted Ingster and West’s 1940 script for an abandoned production featuring Laurence Olivier…The Ingster/West script, which received Code approval in 1940, differs from Hitchcock’s film in one crucial way. Attempting to follow the events of Before the Fact as closely as possible, these writers employed a frame story in which Lina stands trial for Johnnie’s murder; her testimony reveals that she murdered Johnny in self-defense. Her testimony structures the flashback narrative of the film which she illuminates with voice-over narration, outlining her suspicion and itemizing Johnnie’s crimes. This approach allowed the writers to keep Johnnie as a murderer, staying faithful to what they must have felt was the central thrust of Iles’ novel, and to appease the censors by having him killed off at the end.

This difference notwithstanding, several elements of the Ingster/West script—now published in the Library of America collection of West’s writings—informed Hitchcock and his writers. In particular, two different elements appear to have provided the inspiration for one of Suspicion’s early crucial scenes. In the opening scene of Lina’s trial, her prosecutor addresses the jury and demands that Lina be convicted of murder. Hearing his pronouncement, Lina ‘swallows, barely resisting the desire to touch her throat with her hands.’ This gesture, meant to foreshadow Johnnie’s later attempt to poison her, explicitly connects him to physical violence and strangulation. Such violence, absent in Before the Fact, is manifest in Suspicion in the scene in which Johnnie and Lina skip church. This scene, which sets up the ambiguity that permeates the film, forces us to ask whether Johnnie is a violent murderer or whether Lina has simply misread his behavior. Further, the scene structures its ambiguity through an open long shot in which Johnnie appears to be trying to strangle Lina. As a result, his later references to Lina’s ‘ucipital mapilary’ become difficult to decode, as they may refer to either romantic or violent desire.

The church-skipping scene itself, absent from the novel, stems from the Ingster/West script, in which Johnnie whisks Lina away from church for an impromptu picnic. The picnic over, he rises to take her home: ‘he pulls her up, then abruptly, before she can even suspect what he is going to do, he holds her tightly and kisses her [as] she struggles to free herself.’ As he continues, ‘her struggles grow less and he pulls her to him a second time and kisses her while she struggles to free herself,’ though ‘soon she isn’t struggling at all.’ The suggestiveness of this scene was clearly absorbed into Suspicion, but the influence of the early treatments on Hitchcock and his writers ends there.” –Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

It is unfortunate that these unproduced early screenplays didn’t suggest an appropriate ending for Suspicion. Hitchcock and his team were fighting both studio and audience expectations, and they were at a loss for an ending that would satisfy both. The problem plagued Hitchcock into the film’s post-production.

Alfred Hitchcock believed that this problem was exacerbated by his casting choices. Suspicion marked the beginning of one of the director’s most important professional relationships. It was his first film with Cary Grant, and the actor shined in the role of Johnny Aysgarth. The part was different from the roles that Grant usually played, but he was able to display another layer to his persona. 

“Calling attention to the fact that Johnnie is essentially a dangerous version of the Grant persona suggests that the master of playing the carefree playboy hides a sinister motive behind his light comedy—an individual whose charms kept him hiding in plain sight. The role would be a balancing act for Grant, for if that threat did not exist, the film would be without any suspense whatsoever and becomes a directionless melodrama. But if Johnnie is too dangerous and suspicious, Lina’s attraction to him is called into question and [this] destroys the audience’s alliance to her. It was a daring request for Hitchcock to make of the giant star, especially considering the approach Grant takes with the role; rather than playing Johnnie as a significantly different character, his performance is not that different from how he plays so many of his comic characters.” –Lesley L Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014) 

In other words, Hitchcock wasn’t casting against type at all. He was casting a light on the darker qualities that are hidden in the shadows of that “type.” This is one of the most interesting aspects of Suspicion, and the power of this layer of the film was diluted somewhat by the film’s ending. This fact didn’t escape the actor’s attention. Grant agreed with his director about the new ending and later lamented, “We were told later that the audience simply refused to accept [Johnny] as a murderer. In the new version, the film just stops—without the proper ending.”

The two men worked well together. In fact, the director probably gave more of his attention to his leading man than he did to Joan Fontaine.  

“Although principal photography began pleasantly enough on February 10, a coolness developed between the two stars and between Fontaine and Hitchcock; having put the actress through what she called his ‘finishing school,’ Hitchcock probably gave her less attention on Suspicion than he had on Rebecca.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

This lack of attention so bothered the actress that she complained to RKO’s production offices. The suits were already worried about the production (it was going over schedule), and Fontaine’s complaints only fueled their anxiety.

“…In April 1941 an inter-departmental memo observed brusquely: ‘Hitchcock does not appear to be giving as close attention to this picture as he should be—we have good cause to worry about the quality of this production. As a matter of fact, Fontaine has indicated that Hitchcock has not been so exacting in his requirements of her—as he was on Rebecca.’” John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

All of these issues lead to a post-production period that was fraught with creative interference. The studio’s fingers couldn’t stay out of the proverbial pie.

“Principal photography on Suspicion resumed, with RKO determined to speed up the post-production to curb interest charges. Hitchcock blew up, ‘I have never in my puff heard of an important picture being delivered one month after completion of its shooting,’ he wrote [Harry] Edington. ‘Please, Harry, please, tell me this is only a joke so I may resume work on the picture with a feeling of reassurance that it is not going to be sabotaged; otherwise, how can I possibly dream of enthusiastically listening to RKO’s suggestion that I make another picture here.’ When Hitchcock at last completed Principal Photography and briefly traveled east on vacation, producer Sol Lesser trimmed all hints of murder from Suspicion, reducing the running time to fifty-five minutes.” -Leonard J. Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The director often commented on this atrocious fifty-five minute cut of the film.

…I remember the head of RKO returned from New York and said, with a big grin on his face, ‘Oh, you should see what’s been done to your film Suspicion.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Wait and see.’ It was now only 55 minutes long. They had gone through the film in my absence and taken out every scene that indicated the possibility that Cary Grant was a murderer. So there was no film existing at all. That was ridiculous. Nevertheless, I had to compromise on the end.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Bryan Forbes at the National Film Theatre, October 03, 1969)

Here again, we seem to stumble upon the problematic ending. This compromised ending is what keeps Suspicion off the list of Hitchcock’s great films, and the director was “not too pleased” with the ending that he was forced to use. His original idea for the film’s ending was very different from the one that ended the final film.

“What I wanted to do was that the wife was aware that she was going to be murdered by her husband, so she wrote a letter to her mother saying that she was very much in love with him, she didn’t want live anymore, she was going to be killed but society should be protected. She therefore brings up this fatal glass of milk, drinks it and before she does she says, ‘Will you mail this letter to mother?’ Then she drinks the milk and dies. You then have just one final scene of a cheerful Cary Grant going to the mailbox and posting the letter. But this was never permitted because of the basic error in casting.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Bryan Forbes at the National Film Theatre, October 03, 1969)

Before the Fact” ended similarly but didn’t include an incriminating letter:

“…On the third day of her illness Johnnie came into her bedroom to see her, in the middle of the morning. He was carrying a glass of milk-and-soda on a little tray. Lina turned her head on the pillows and smiled at him. Johnnie stood just inside the door, looking at her. His face worked. The smile faded from Lina’s lips. A single stab, like an electric shock, ran through her whole body. She knew, beyond a doubt, that the moment had come. ‘Monkeyface, I – I’ve brought you this.’

In an instant Lina’s mind had mechanically reviewed the situation,  and found it safe. Johnnie had not been silly. People did die of influenza. She jerked  herself up on one elbow in bed. She must be quick: quick to act, before she could think, and be afraid. The thin silk nightgown slipped down over her shoulder. ‘Give it me.’ But Johnnie hesitated. There were tears in his eyes, just as Lina had foreseen. She stretched out her hand. ‘Give it me, Johnnie.’ Johnnie sidled up towards the bed.

Lina snatched  the glass and drained it. It tasted quite ordinary. Could she have made a mistake, after all? But Johnnie was looking down at her in a way which showed that she had made no mistake. She wiped her lips carefully on her handkerchief and lifted her face to Johnnie. ‘Kiss me, Johnnie.’ Johnnie was staring at her now with an expression of absolute horror. It was as if he had not realized at all what he was doing until he had done it. “Kiss me!” She locked her arms round his neck and held him, for a few seconds, strained against her. ‘Now go, darling.’

‘Monkeyface,  I—I…’

‘Go, darling.’ She did not want Johnnie to see her die. Johnnie went. Lina listened to       his slow, shambling footsteps going down the stairs, so unlike Johnnie’s usual brisk tread. The tears came into her own eyes. Johnnie would miss her terribly. He had gone into the Morning room. He would stay there, waiting. Lina could hardly believe she was going to die. After she had lived so vividly. After she had liked life, in spite of what it had brought her, so much. What would death be like? She was not exactly frightened of it. But … But it did seem a pity that she had to die.

A tear trickled slowly down her cheek onto the pillow. It did seem a pity that she had to die, when she would have liked so much to live.” Anthony Berkeley as Francis Iles (Before the Fact, 1932)

Before The Fact - First Edition

This is the First Edition hardback cover for “Before the Fact” by Francis Iles.

Hitchcock’s preferred ending seems to relate directly to the novel’s climax, but his addition of the letter is an especially Hitchcockian touch. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of documented evidence that this ending was ever shot, and certain scholars feel that Hitchcock never gave it any serious consideration. However, it seems highly likely that the studio simply nixed the ending before it had the chance to be officially committed to paper. After all, there is ample evidence in the body of the film that his preferred ending was strongly considered. Steven DeRosa is one of several scholars to comment on the film’s mail motif.

“In spite of the lack of script material for an ‘incriminating letter’ ending, there is much evidence in the finished film to support Hitchcock’s statements that this was his preferred ending. Such an ending is consistent with—and would have completed—a major theme in the existing picture.

In the opening sequence, it is a postage stamp which Johnnie borrows from Lina that ultimately brings them together. Using the stamp to pay his fare, Johnnie remarks to the annoyance of the conductor, ‘Write to your mother!’ Thus, foreshadowing the ending of Lina’s incriminating letter to her mother. At crucial moments in the film letters are sent and received. When Lina elopes with Johnnie, the excuse that she gives her parents when she goes out is that she is going to the post office.

The theme of ‘letters’ is carried forward in the game of anagrams that Lina plays with Beaky. At the moment when Lina decides she will leave Johnnie, she writes a letter to him, ultimately tearing it up (an action that would be repeated by both Judy Barton in Vertigo and Melanie Daniels in The Birds). Johnnie then enters with a telegram containing news of his father-in-law’s death. Later, Lina’s suspicions mount when Johnnie hides a letter he’s received from an insurance company. Finally, Hitchcock makes his cameo appearance dropping a letter into a mailbox.

Also telling are several suggested titles contained in a memo from producer Harry Edington to RKO executive Peter Lieber, dated December 10, 1940, which include: Letter from a Dead Lady, A Letter to Mail, Posthumously Yours, Forever Yours, Yours to Remember, and Your Loving Widow — all suggestive of the ‘incriminating letter’ ending…” Steven DeRosa (writingwithhitchcock.com)

Besides this preferred ending to the film, there is ample evidence of two other endings.

“The first two or three drafts of the screenplay even go so far as to have the husband, exonerated, go off into the RAF to atone. (‘Only yesterday he fought off ten German fighters—downed three of them himself, disabled one, and chased the rest of them halfway across the Channel.’)”John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

This ending as scripted is rather unsatisfying. It seems to kowtow to the studio and censors more than necessary. One wonders if this ending was ever seriously considered by Hitchcock. It seems possible that it was scripted in this manner in an effort to curb interference from the Hays office. However, this is merely conjecture.

The infamous “preview ending” was quite a bit different but proved unsatisfactory to audiences.

“In the June 1941 test screenings, the film ended with Lina drinking the milk, then realizing it is not poisoned. Discovering that Johnnie is on the verge of poisoning himself, she halts his suicide plan and fields his pleas for forgiveness for being a cad (and realizes he is no murderer), and they make up. In comment cards, a number of audience members found Lina’s drinking of the milk to lack credibility. One respondent best summed up the sentiment: ‘You violated the first principal [sic] of every human—preservation of life at any cost. … What sane woman would act that way?’” –Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

One might ask this particular respondent the following questions: “Why are you so certain that Lina is a sane woman? Can she not have weak moments? Do people not give up trying? Have you never heard of suicide?” After all, this viewer said nothing of Cary Grant’s plan to end his life. Is this not a double standard of some kind? However, Alfred Hitchcock responded differently to this particular response.

“Hitchcock raised the point himself just after Suspicion’s release, telling the New York Herald Tribune, ‘It seemed logical to me that she would drink it and put him to the test. If he didn’t, fine and good; her suspicions would clear away and we’d have our happy ending. We shot that finish. … Trial audiences booed it, and I don’t blame them [because it contained dull exposition]. They pronounced the girl stupid to willingly drink her possible destruction. With that dictum, I personally do not agree.’ The director speaks directly to the novel’s primary inquiry. Before the Fact’s heroine is a seemingly sane woman who does in fact ‘act that way.’” –Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

One highly doubts that this ending would have been particularly satisfying, but it couldn’t be any worse than what became the film’s final ending.

“Added to the script on July 18, 1941, the present ending emerged after several months of revisions, all directed at re-working Samson Raphaelson’s ending… All of the endings tried and abandoned for Suspicion revolve around the poisoned milk, and lead to Johnny’s confession of his wrongdoings—he may not have been a murderer, but he was certainly a gambler and an embezzler—and also, in some way, to the renewal of the couple’s romance. With all these endings rejected, and with Hitchcock forced to reconstruct the film after it was dismantled in his absence by an overzealous RKO executive, the director added the present ending to the shooting script, well after principal photography had been completed. Importantly, as written, the ending contains a line of dialogue that disappeared during filming or editing and that significantly alters how the ending is interpreted. In the shooting script, after Lina has pleaded with Johnnie to return home and help rebuild their marriage, Johnnie states outright, ‘No, Lina. We’re saying goodbye.’ The film cuts to the final shot of their car driving away, with Lina moving closer to Johnnie. In the ending of the film, Johnnie simply says, ‘No, Lina, no,’ and, as they drive off, he wraps his arm around her, suggesting the possibility that he has accepted her request. The two endings are drastically different despite these small changes. In the script, Johnnie appears to confirm his criminal behavior and his inability to change, and Lina’s final gesture appears as one last, misguided attempt to bring her and Johnnie together. In the film, however, Johnnie’s dismissal of Lina is irresolute, and his final gesture suggests, both simultaneously and contradictorily, his desire to renew his romance with Lina, and the continuation of his malevolent intentions.” –Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

This ending feels as if it has been tacked on as an after-thought (and such is the case). Of course, there are those that disagree. Interestingly, François Truffaut defended the film’s ending during his infamous interview with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962.

“I’ve read the novel and I liked it, but the screen­play’s just as good. It is not a compromise; it’s actually a different story. The film version, showing a woman who believes her husband is a killer, is less farfetched than the novel, which is about a woman who accepts the fact that her husband is a murderer. It seems to me that the film, in terms of its psychological values, has an edge over the novel because it allows for subtler nuances in the characterizations. One might even say that Hollywood’s unwritten laws and taboos helped to purify Suspicion by de-dramatizing it, in contrast with routine screen adaptations, which tend to magnify the melodramatic elements. I’m not saying that the picture is superior to the novel, but I do feel that a novel that followed the story line of your screenplay might have made a better book than ‘Before the Fact.’”François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Truffaut may have a point, but many of the film’s positive reviews couldn’t help but mention the ending with a degree of regret. Film Bulletin hinted at this in their early trade review: 

“This does not match Alfred Hitchcock’s superb Rebecca, but it is another taut, suspenseful film drama from the famed director. It has some slow spots and the story carries on beyond its natural ending in an effort to squeeze out a bit more suspense, but the sheer cleverness of the masterful Hitchcock keeps the spectator rapt in his megaphone magic. There are the same elements in this show that made box-office successes of pictures like Rebecca and A Woman’s Face. It is not ‘pleasant’ entertainment, but it is fascinating and completely diverting. The presence of Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in the cast assures a fast start for Suspicion in all situations and grosses should maintain a high level with the support of favorable word-of-mouth…” Film Bulletin (October 04, 1941)

Bosley Crowther’s criticisms were padded with a generally positive response to the film, but it is worth noting that his largest complaint is targeted at the film’s compromised ending.

“If Alfred Hitchcock were not the fine film director that he is, the chances are better than even that he would be a distinguished light at the (legal) bar. For very few lawyers are gifted with the special ability which is his to put a case together in the most innocent but subtle way, to plant prima facie evidence without arousing the slightest alarm and then suddenly to muster his assumptions and drive home a staggering attack. Mr. Hitchcock is probably the most artful sophist working for the films — and anyone who doesn’t’ think so should see Suspicion at the Music Hall.

True, we should incidentally warn you that this is not Mr. Hitchcock at his best, for the clerical staff which helped him prepare his brief for this case did not provide too much in the way of material. Those highly intriguing complications which have featured some of his previous master works are lacking in this instance. Rather Mr. Hitchcock is compelled to construct his attack around a straight psychological progression: a shy, deeply sensitive English girl marries a charming rakehell in maiden innocence, and then, through accumulated evidence, begins to suspect him of dark and foul deeds, suspects of murdering two dear people and finally of having designs upon herself.

Clearly, Mr. Hitchcock’s problem is to give this simple story great consequence—to build, out of slight suggestions and vague, uncertain thoughts, a mounting tower of suspicion which looms forbiddingly. And this he does magnificently with his customary casualness. And early remark dropped by the girl’s father to the effect that her intended is a cheat, a scene in which the husband acts strangely indifferent to a friend when the latter is seized with a heart attack, a little squabble over a slight untruth — all are directed by Mr. Hitchcock so that they seem inconsequential at the time but still with a sinister undertone which grows as the tension mounts.

Much of his purpose is accomplished through the performance of Joan Fontaine, it must be said, and she, as well as Mr. Hitchcock, deserves unstinted praise. This young lady has unquestionably become one of the finest actresses on the screen, and one of the most beautiful, too; and her development in this picture of a fear-tortured character is fluid and compelling all the way. Cary Grant as the husband is provokingly irresponsible, boyishly gay and also oddly mysterious, as the role properly demands; and Nigel Bruce, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Leo G. Carroll are fine in minor roles.

One must remark that the ending is not up to Mr. Hitchcock’s usual style, and the general atmosphere of the picture is far less genuine than he previously has wrought. But still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense and a picture that entertains you from beginning to — well, almost the end.” –Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941)

The response across the ocean didn’t digress from this pattern, as this review published in The Times indicates:

“It is easy to understand the appeal that such a novel as Mr. Francis Iles’s ‘Before the Fact,’ on which this film is based would have for a director of Mr. Alfred Hitchcock’s particular talents. Mr. Hitchcock delights in building up suspense, in suggesting, by touches which have all the subtlety of the seemingly careless, that things are not quite what they seem, in creating an atmosphere of suspicion…

…Up to the last few minutes Mr. Hitchcock follows the book faithfully, and his methods — sudden, uneasy silences, an effective, if a little crude, use of shadow, some cleverly taken close-ups — enhance the drama, but he then suddenly and unforgivably reverses all the points he has been at such pains to make, and kills the psychological significance of the story by clearing Johnnie of all suspicion and providing a happy end. A sad finish to a film which, so long as it keeps to the book, is absorbing…” -The Times (December 04, 1941)

Hollywood Magazines 4 Star review also found the film’s single fault in the film’s ending.

Suspicion is a gripping, compelling film. Alfred Hitchcock again proves himself a superb master of direction and production. Joan Fontaine, in her second big screen role, surpasses even her brilliant work in Rebecca… Miss Fontaine’s acting, as her terrifying suspicions mount, is superb.

The mood and shading of character are unequalled by any of Hitchcock’s previous films. Cary Grant is convincing in his unsympathetic role. If the film has a fault, it lies in the ending, which is anticlimactic after the high-pitched suspense and excitement of the entire film.” -Hollywood Magazine (February 1942)

Of course, there were a few reviews that refrained from criticizing the denouement. Variety’s review is one such example:

“Alfred Hitchcock’s trademarked cinematic development of suspenseful drama, through mental emotions of the story principals, is vividly displayed in Suspicion, a class production [from the novel ‘Before the Fact’ by Francis Iles] provided with excellence in direction, acting, and mounting…” –Variety (December 31, 1941)

A review published in Harrison’s Reports even seemed to praise the films finale:

“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character portrayed by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers. The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband was about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion.” -Harrison’s Reports (September 27, 1941)

The success of the film brought RKO over half a million in profits after the accounting was complete, and the film’s critical success reinforced Hitchcock’s reputation. After all is said and done, Suspicion is a highly engaging film with some brilliant performances. It isn’t a masterwork, but it is an enjoyable way to spend ninety-nine minutes.

SS1

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This seems to be the same artwork utilized for the film’s original one sheet. It really looks quite fabulous! The one sheet artwork is almost always superior to what is used for home movie releases, and it is nice to see that Warner Archives didn’t make this mistake.

The menu utilizes this same artwork and it is accompanied by an excerpt from Franz Waxman’s score.

Menu

Most would agree that it is quite elegant and easy to navigate.

SS2

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Warner Archives offers another nice transfer with this release. If there are flaws in the image, they seem to stem from Harry Stradling’s “glossy” soft focus cinematography. Detail is limited by the aesthetics, but this Blu-ray release does offer a level of detail that has gone unseen on previous DVD editions of the film. The transfer seems to embrace he film’s original celluloid source, as there is a nice fine layer of grain present throughout the film. However, the grain structure is never erratic or distracting to the viewer. Contrast is nicely rendered here and blacks are always deep without noticeably crushing any details.

SS3

Sound Quality:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

The Mono DTS-HD Master Audio is a nice rendering of the film’s sound elements, but these elements are marginally problematic in that the music seems a bit boxed in by the recording methods of the era, and dialogue sometimes seems a bit thin. However, one cannot expect the transfer to be any better than the film’s original source elements. There aren’t any distracting anomalies here, and none of these minor flaws are ever distracting.

SS4

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

 “Before the Fact: Suspicious Hitchcock” – (SD) – (21:33)

Those with a familiarity with Laurent Bouzereau’s  comprehensive documentaries for Universal’s Hitchcock catalog might find themselves disappointed with this program. Film historians and scholars (Bill Krohn, Robert Osborne, Richard Schickel, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Franklin, and Christopher Husted) discuss the film and its place in Hitchcock’s filmography while giving a few details about the production. Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter) and John W. Waxman (Franz Waxman’s son) are also on board to discuss their father’s work on the film. It is an interesting piece that could more properly be called an appreciation of the film. Fans will be grateful to have it included here.

Theatrical Trailer – (01:37)

This trailer for Suspicion has seen better days. Both the picture and the sound have been marred by time. There even seems to be footage missing from this one. However, it is really nice to see it included. Fontaine’s Lina addresses the audience and tells audiences about her suspicions as we see clips from the film.

SS5

Final Words:

Suspicion isn’t the perfect Hitchcock thriller, but it is always engaging and boasts incredible performances across the board. Cary Grant’s first performance for Alfred Hitchcock is at once amusing and menacing. This Blu-ray release is the perfect way to watch the film at home and earns an enthusiastic recommendation.

Review by: Devon Powell

SS6

Source Material:

Francis Iles [aka Anthony Berkeley Cox] (Before the Fact, 1932)

Staff Writer (Filmdom’s Only Feminine Writing Team Specializes in Thrillers, Syracuse Herald Journal, July, 10 1941)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 27, 1941)

Staff Writer (Film Bulletin, October 04, 1941)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, November 21, 1941)

Staff Writer (The Times, December 04, 1941)

Staff Writer (Variety, December, 31, 1941)

Staff Writer (Hollywood Magazine, February 1942)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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

Charles Higham & Roy Moseley (Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, 1989)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Steven DeRosa (writingwithhitchcock.com)

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

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

Patrick Faubert (The Role and Presence of Authorship in Suspicion, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Christina Lane and Josephine Botting (What did Alma Think, Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)

Blu-ray Review: I Confess

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: February 16, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:34:27

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

2.0 French Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Castellano) Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Latino) Dolby Digital

2.0 Polish Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish (Castellano), Spanish (Latino), Czech, Polish

Ratio: 1.37:1

Notes: This title was previously released (and is still available) in a DVD edition.

Title

“I feel that both I Confess and The Wrong Man suffer from a lack of humor. The only question then is whether one should always have a sense of humor in dealing with a serious subject. It seems to me that some of my British films were too light and some of my American films were too heavy handed, but it’s the most difficult thing in the world to get just the right dosage. It’s only after the film is done that one can judge that properly.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

I Confess does lack the humor that is usually present in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but this seems appropriate for the subject matter. It is based on what François Truffaut called “a very mediocre play” by Paul Anthelme entitled, “Nos Deux Consciences” (Our Two Consciences). It was a rather obscure play that was written in 1902, but it had elements that interested Hitchcock despite any dramatic weaknesses inherent in the property. Louis Verneuil was responsible for bringing the play to the director’s attention.

“Verneuil came along with this play, and I guess he must have done a good sales job, because I bought it! Now, when I buy a story, that doesn’t mean I’m taking on the theme as well. They tell me the story, and if I feel the subject is suitable and the situation lends itself to what I want, the theme of the film will be worked out later on.” –Alfred Hitchcock(Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The film was originally planned as a Transatlantic release before the production company crumbled. However, Warner Brothers bought the property from the company for Hitchcock to direct. A number of writers were courted to collaborate with Hitchcock—including Graham Greene (who couldn’t have been less interested). It seems that Victor Peers and Lesley Storm made a few early contributions to the scenario (though some of this was obviously tossed). Peers wrote a letter to Sidney Bernstein that discussed the trouble they were having with the script:

“Dear Sidney, We met last night—Hitch, Lesley Storm, Peggy Singer, and myself. Before Lesley Storm’s arrival, I sensed that Hitch wasn’t too happy with the story line, which is enclosed here. He did not care for the first scene at the Grandford home and the scene of the priest going to Malotte’s home is apparently out of the question from the Catholic point of view.

Lesley Storm, however, argued her point so well that Hitch was obviously most interested and suddenly turned to me and said that he would like her to return with him to CA and to work with him on the actual scenario…

…From my angle, Storm appears to be getting hold on the story and thinking constructively and, in clarifying the characterization, for example, she thinks that in their youth it is Ruth who is much more in love with Michel than he with her. He leans toward priesthood and it is because she is afraid that she may lose him that she gives herself to him in an effort to keep him.

It is the parents, of course, who destroy this plan.

This idea of characterization impressed Hitchcock very much indeed. The position then is that Storm will wait until the end of this week for word from you as to whether 1) she continues and 2) she goes to America.

Hitch is certainly very low in spirit… Moreover, he has been working continuously and late hours and undoubtedly needs a rest…” –Victor Peers (Letter to Sidney Bernstein – as reprinted in “Hitchcock’s Notebooks” by Dan Auiler)

It seems that Storm was discharged because she was uncommunicative with her collaborators. Hitchcock and Bernstein were left waiting to hear word from her after one of their script meetings. Storm was to work on the changes discussed in the meeting, and return a revised treatment. Weeks passed without any word from her.

Paul Vincent Carroll also worked on the project for a short time before Hitchcock finally commissioned George Tabori to collaborate with him. He got along quite well with Hitchcock during their collaboration, and the resulting screenplay seemed to satisfy both Hitchcock and Tabori. The script was a lot darker than the final film, and it had a number of controversial elements that were just begging to be eradicated by someone—be it the studio or the Catholic Legion of Decency. The screenplay ended with Father Logan being hanged for Keller’s crime (and only after his death was his innocence established). What’s more, the backstory involved an illegitimate child that Father Logan doesn’t know about! As anyone can guess, censorship won the day. Somehow, though, Tabori was bemused when changes had to be made. Actually, Hitchcock scholarship seems equally bemused. It seems that there are various opinions as to who censored the film.

Some scholars believe that the Catholic Church was responsible for the changes:

“…There was a hitch when Catholic authorities saw George Tabori’s original script and stopped all use of their churches in the city, because in the original draft Clift’s character was found guilty. Rather than fight the Catholic fathers, Hitchcock instructed Tabori to alter his script. Tabori later recalled, ‘I felt betrayed. I walked out in the middle of a story conference with the excuse of having to take a leak, went straight for the airport, to New York City, and never came back.’ Unworried, Hitchcock simply commissioned William Archibald to alter the script to his satisfaction.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

This version of events doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, but there are those who insist that Warner Brothers was responsible for the alterations to the script:

“Bernstein took the lead in talks with religious authorities, seeking their approval; and surprisingly the Canadian Church found I Confess profoundly catholic—for the priest, in spite of his illegitimate child and execution, was greatly ennobled by the script. The Transatlantic partners wisely employed a local priest with a doctorate in theology, Father La Couline bridged the discussions with the Church, reading the script to authenticate the ecclesiastical reality and recommending trims to avoid censorship.

It was Warner Bros. that finally rebelled. For years Hitchcock had staved off the studio’s nervousness, hoping somehow to slip his ideas onto the screen. But as the midsummer start of filming loomed, Hitchcock was forced to circulate the latest script by Tabori, and studio officials were shocked to discover that the wrong-man priest still had an illegitimate child in the story—and still was destined to be executed at the end of the film. In late April, the studio put its foot down: it couldn’t produce such a film, which was bound to provoke an overwhelming outcry in America.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Some combination of both of these stories is probably true. Either way, it is certainly clear that Hitchcock was forced to change the script (and the director was probably even more disappointed than Tabori). This change altered what was originally a perfect allegory, although the similarities to the story of Christ are still quite obvious in the final film.

Archibald would be the final writer to work on the film, but there is ample evidence to suggest that Alma Hitchcock worked on the script along with the famed director and his writing team. In the end credit was given to Tabori and Archibald for the compromised final version of the screenplay. Of course, the script was simply one of many compromises concerning I Confess that would be forced upon Hitchcock before production commenced. One of the largest compromises concerned the casting of an actress to portray Ruth Grandfort. Jennifer Jones was discussed and the idea tossed before Hitchcock settled on his choice—and his choice wasn’t Anne Baxter.

Anne Baxter Publicity Photograph for I CONFESS

This is a publicity photograph of Anne Baxter that was used to promote “I CONFESS.” The actress was not Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred choice.

“I didn’t want Anne Baxter to play the feminine lead; I wanted Anita Bjork, who had played Miss Julie, However, Warner Brothers decided against her, sent Anita Bjork back to her fiords, and I was informed by a phone call that Anne Baxter had been assigned to the picture. I met her for the first time a week before the shooting, in a dining room of Quebec’s Hôtel Château Frontenac. When you compare Anita Bjork and Anne Baxter, wouldn’t you say that was a pretty awkward substitution?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The reason for Bjork’s dismissal is that she showed up with her lover and illegitimate child, and Warner Brothers didn’t want a scandal on their hands. (The Ingrid Bergman – Roberto Rossellini scandal was fresh in Hollywood’s mind.) Whatever one might think about Anne Baxter’s performance, we will agree that she doesn’t have quite the same qualities as Anita Bjork. It is difficult to believe that she is a part of Quebec society. Perhaps Hitchcock’s disappointment was palpable, because Baxter seemed to feel somewhat rejected by what she considered the director’s apathetic treatment of her. The director dyed the actress’s hair blonde and altered Bjork’s wardrobe to fit Baxter, but he was unable to turn her into a convincing Quebecer.

Anita Bjork (originally cast)

Alfred Hitchcock had originally cast Anita Bjork as his female lead. She was replaced, because Warner Brothers feared a scandal.

Many actors were discussed as being suitable to play the role of the tortured Father Logan (including James Stewart and Laurence Olivier), but it is difficult to picture anyone other than Montgomery Clift in this particular role. Of course, the process of actually working with Clift was not without its problems. The actor had many personal demons and a habit of trying to drown them in a bottle (or with narcotics). His neurosis were certainly problematic on the set of I Confess, and his particular working methods were at odds with Hitchcock’s.

“…Hitchcock had problems communicating with Montgomery Clift, who was then at the apogee of his career and steeped in the Method school of acting which was just manifesting itself in Hollywood… After Brando, Clift and James Dean were the foremost exponents of the method, which primarily meant that the actor got inside his character, and concentrated on motivation and background to deliver a fully rounded portrayal of the person, not just as the camera caught him for a specific scene, but where he had come from, where he was going, what impelled him to be there – the very antithesis of Hitchcock’s methods. Clift’s biographer, Robert LaGuardia, wrote that Hitchcock ‘simply couldn’t understand the fanatical intensity of Monty. He complained constantly about ‘all that preparation … Over and Over, Hitch had to stop and explain to Monty why, at the end of a certain scene he had to look up at a church or suddenly turn around. He wasn’t used to having to explain to his actors that he intended to edit in a shot of a clanging bell or some such event.’ The contrast between actor and director manifested itself early in the shooting, when blue-eyed Clift insisted on wearing brown contact lenses because the script stated that Father Logan’s eyes were brown. Hitchcock found this totally incomprehensible, not least because I Confess was shot in black and white.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

I Confess - Montgomery Clift and the Method

Montgomery Clift’s method acting sometimes conflicted with Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic style. The actor had trouble looking up so that Hitchcock could cut to his perspective during this series of shots.

Hitchcock’s efforts certainly weren’t in vain. Clift really adored the script—the original script that ended in the Father Logan’s unjust execution. He began preparing for the role with enthusiasm and spent a week doing research in a monastery before filming. Unfortunately, he was less enthusiastic about the changes that had been made to the script when he arrived in New York for his camera tests. He was at least in agreement with his director on this issue (not that it did either one of them any good).

There were other minor issues concerning Montgomery Clift that perturbed Hitchcock, but none that caused the director any real aggravation.

“Clift had his drama coach, Mira Rostova, close by at all times; she had been made part of his contract, and was umbilically attached to his performance. Rostova rehearsed with the sensitive actor daily, and then stood just out of sight whenever cameras rolled. Clift waited for her nod of approval, not Hitchcock’s, before moving on. [Karl] Malden thought that Rostova’s presence created ‘a deep division and tension’ on the set, a gulf between the star and the director—but if so it remained a largely unspoken gulf. Hitchcock left Clift and Rostova alone… If anything, Hitchcock was extraordinarily patient, exceptionally polite, as he went about collecting his shots and angles.

The director realized that, if anything, Rostova helped the production by soothing Clift’s wounded psyche. Although Hitchcock dubbed her the ‘little pigeon,’ he treated the drama coach with elaborate courtesy, and made a point of including her in the cast dinners he hosted at the Château Frontenac in August and September, and later at Bellagio road.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Chances are that Rostova’s presence was a larger thorn in Malden’s side than in Hitchcock’s. The actor felt that Clift and his coach were somehow conspiring against him. It is impossible to know whether or not this is the case, but the two friends had a cooler relationship on the set that was usual. Perhaps this is “the method” at play once again. After all, their characters were against one another in the film. In any case, Clift’s performance is extraordinary (even if several critics denigrated his performance upon the film’s release).

He seemed to embody the character of Father Logan. He is an actor that always seems to be hiding secret emotional wounds, and this characteristic was particularly appropriate for this role. Clift’s priest quietly carries his burden with a grace and dignity that should endear him to audiences. Truffaut pointed out that Father Logan is constantly in forward motion. This motion is part of the film’s design and illustrates visually the character’s integrity. It is impossible to think of any other actor pulling this off quite as effectively.

Hitchcock was always one to fill the frame with rich detail, but this fact has never been more evident that it is when one watches I Confess. Hitchcock even explained to one of the extras precisely how he wanted her to eat an apple in an angry mob scene. This is a detail that might very well be missed by casual viewers, but these small details were important to Hitchcock. Of course, most of the visuals fit a particularly interesting design that is often discussed by scholars.

The Apple Eater

Alfred Hitchcock showed the “apple eater” exactly how he wanted her to eat the apple.

“The film is rich in religious imagery. In one shot the camera catches Father Logan walking tormented past a Church, the camera placed high above one of the Stations of the Cross, as if making the point that Father Logan too is undertaking his own journey to Calvary. The film’s opening shot is an elliptically angled view of a looming church, darkly brooding and sinister. Clift’s lonely inner struggle to sacrifice himself rather than his beliefs is contrasted with the killer’s pathetic need to confess, as if by telling of his sin his guilt will be absolved.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stations of the Cross

One wonders if Humphries is mistaking Quebec’s ‘Le Château Frontenac’ for a church. If he is, this doesn’t lead one astray. The city’s churches do loom large over the film. However, none of Hitchcock’s “religious imagery” is merely imagery. It is symbolism. Let us use the same example that Humphries uses of Father Logan walking tormented past a church as he is seen through a statue of Christ carrying his cross to his own crucifixion. Isn’t Father Logan carrying his own cross to his own crucifixion—and for the very same reasons (the burden of sins that aren’t their own)! He could very well die for someone else’s sin. This is a direct parallel to the story of Christ.

If this isn’t enough, Hitchcock uses another image during the trial sequence. Father Logan is being questioned by the prosecution, and a large crucifix hangs on conspicuously on the wall above him as he is shot in profile. This reminds audiences what might potentially happen to Logan, while reminding Logan about his own beliefs. It is an effective shot. The crucifix seems to be a weight on top of the priest throughout the entire rest of the sequence.

Crucifix & Father Logan at the Trial

Another particularly interesting bit of religious imagery occurs at the very beginning of the film. We see a man exit a building in a priest’s cassock before walking down an alley. Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks do interesting things with composition and lighting. The scene is lit in such a way that the man’s silhouette forms a cross. This is interesting enough, but the man also casts a long shadow in the shape of an inverted cross. This tells the audience that the man is pretending to be a Holy man of God, but that his real nature is perhaps malicious. The man turns out to be Otto Keller (the film’s murderer).

Cross Image in shadow

There are many such examples in the film. When one considers the film as an allegory that mirrors Christ’s crucifixion, it becomes clear why Alfred Hitchcock and George Tabori fought for the original ending. However, many scholars and critics believe that the film’s final ending is even more appropriate. Patrick McGilligan seems to side with these critics.

I Confess smolders without ever catching fire. Hitchcock is most comfortable with the secondary characters (the Brian Aherne scenes are especially playful), the brooding Quebec City and Catholic atmosphere, [and] the dreamlike flashback. (These silent interludes, depicting the idyllic prewar romance between the priest and his girlfriend, seem almost to achieve the kind of hyperrealism Hitchcock had wanted from Salvador Dalí for Spellbound.) Perhaps the best part of I Confess is the Hitchcockian ending—‘which is liturgically and thematically right (transference of guilt healed by confession),’ in Bill Krohn’s words—although it was virtually imposed by the studio as an alternative to hanging the priest.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Unfortunately, the film was released to somewhat disenchanted reviews. Warner Brothers made a small profit off of the film, but it was not the success that many other Hitchcock had been. Hitchcock later believed that making the film was a mistake.

“…Aside from the public, there were many of the critics who apparently felt that for a priest to guard a secret at the risk of his own life was absurd… If the basic idea is not acceptable to the public, it compromises the whole picture. And this brings up another generalization: To put a situation into a film because you yourself can vouch for its authenticity, either because you’ve experienced it or because you’ve heard of it, simply isn’t good enough. You may feel sure of yourself because you can always say, ‘This is true, [and] I’ve seen it.’ You can argue as much as you like, but the public and critics still won’t accept it… That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice himself for such a thing.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

One shouldn’t take Hitchcock’s opinion on this particular matter as gospel. This reviewer isn’t Catholic and understood and admired the priest’s resolve regardless. It is difficult to say whether or not this was a valid argument. However, it should be said that the director was selling himself short when he went on to tell Truffaut that the film “comes under the heading of an old-fashioned plot.If anything, I Confess was years ahead of its time. One could imagine the likes of Martin Scorsese tackling just such a subject.

The critics didn’t care for the film upon its release. Variety’s staff critic did manage to summon some positive remarks about the film, but led in criticizing the film for its lack of the director’s trademark suspense.

“An interesting plot premise holds out considerable promise for this Alfred Hitchcock production, but I Confess is short of the suspense one would expect. Hitchcock used the actual streets and buildings of picturesque Quebec to film the Paul Anthelme play on which the screenplay is based…

…While Hitchcock short-changes on the expected round of suspense for which he is noted, he does bring out a number of topflight performances and gives the picture an interesting polish that is documentary at times. Clift’s ability to project mood with restrained strength is a high spot of the film, and he is believable as the young priest. Physically, he doesn’t have as mature an appearance as the role opposite Baxter calls for, but otherwise, his work is flawless.” –Variety (December 31, 1952)

Other critics were less kind to I Confess. It is evident that Bosley Crowther was too wrapped up in his personal expectations about what an Alfred Hitchcock should be to appreciate the dark story that the director had to offer. His review in the New York Times betrays a shallow mind that is nearly incapable of forward thinking. His review attacks everything from the script to Montgomery Clift’s wonderful performance. I suppose that the actor’s subtleties were lost on critics in 1953.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s famous talent for brewing a mood of fine suspense with clever direction and cutting is spent on a nigh suspense-less script in I Confess, his latest picture for Warners… And even though moments in the picture do have some tension and power, and the whole thing is scrupulously acted by a tightly professional cast, the consequence is an entertainment that tends to drag, sag and generally grow dull. It is not the sort of entertainment that one hopefully expects of ‘Hitch.’

The trouble, of course, is that the audience is told near the start of the film that the hero is not guilty of the murder with which he is subsequently charged. The murderer, we know, is a fellow who confesses his act right away to the irreproachable hero, a Roman Catholic priest. And the issue is in the dilemma of the priest, when suspicion falls on him and he is unable to clear himself in a jiffy because he is bound to silence by what is known as ‘the seal of the confessional.’

This makes for a nervous situation that George Tabori and William Archibald have prolonged through a considerable amount of incidental plotting in their obviously padded script. They have ominously piled against their hero so much heavy circumstantial evidence that it seems he can never get around it and avoid the penalty of loyalty to a creed. But only the most credulous patron will be worried for very long that the hero will not be delivered from his dilemma by some saving grace. And this realization well unburdens the situation of any real suspense… In short, the plotting of the story through its long middle section is dull.

Finally, the off-beat possibility of making something of the anguish of the priest in this unhappy situation is not only missed in the script but it is barely realized and suggested in the performance of Montgomery Clift. Under Mr. Hitchcock’s direction, Mr. Clift rather walks through the role with a slightly bewildered expression and a monotonously taciturn air. He seems neither tormented nor frightened—nor, for that matter, really to care.

As the matronly lady of the old romance, Anne Baxter gives an eloquent show of feeling sorry for herself and breathing heavily, but the ease with which she abandons both and resumes a dutiful attitude toward her husband (Roger Dann) is a bit disheartening. Karl Maiden as a stubborn detective, Brian Aherne as a prosecutor, O. E. Hasse as the twitching murderer and Dolly Haas as his wife are all good.

And, of course, Mr. Hitchcock does manage to inject little glints of imagery and invent little twists of construction that give the film the smooth, neat glitter of his style. Shot on location in Quebec, it has a certain atmospheric flavor, too. But it never gets up and goes places. It just ambles and drones along. Bosley Crowther (New York Times, March 23, 1953)

Well, we will admit that Mr. Crowther should know quite a bit about ambling and droning along if his reviews are any indication. This particular reviewer has never cared for him, so it is probably better to keep my commentary to myself. It would be highly biased. In any case, the film was met with similar criticisms in Hitchcock’s native London.

This film is directed by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock and it lacks two things normally connected with his name and work -first, that moment when he springs a surprise on the audience, a respectable man, as it were, suddenly rounding on a friend with a drawn revolver, and, secondly, the careful building up of suspense. Suspense, in a measure, there certainly is, and Mr. Hitchcock loses no time in making it clear what form it will take, but it is suspense without its mainspring…

…The wisdom of introducing, a sacred subject into a ‘thriller’ is dubious, and the film seems conscious of disturbance and disharmony at the centre of balance. A conventional chase through a luxury hotel is an admission of the failure of the original idea to survive intact, and never does Mr. Clift suggest a man in any touch with the things of the spirit…” –The Times (April 20, 1953)

Opinion hadn’t changed a great deal when Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky wrote The Films of Alfred Hitchcock in 1976. Instead of reanalyzing the film for a new generation, Harris and Lasky adopted Alfred Hitchcock’s apathetic attitude towards the film.

“The screenplay adaptation was somber and lacked the subtle humor found in most Hitchcock films. The result is that the story is both frustrating and tedious… Of course, the entire premise upon which the film rests is that a priest’s first obligation is to God and the holy vows of the church. It is precisely this concept that annoyed non-Catholic viewers. ‘Why wouldn’t he just speak up to save his life?’ is the question.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

One can wrap their minds around the director’s attitude towards the film. After all, it doesn’t represent his original vision. It is sometimes difficult for an artist to see beyond his own compromises. Actually, the film was further compromised in Quebec after the film was released. The Legion of Decency slapped it with a rating of ‘Morally Objectionable for Adults’ despite the fact that the Catholic press raved about the film. As a result, Quebec’s Censor Bureau insisted on cutting three minutes out of Anne Baxter’s flashback story. These little aggravations tend to add up in one’s mind. It probably became quite difficult for Hitchcock to look at I Confess in the proper perspective.

In the end, I Confess is another dark and deliberately paced Hitchcock offering. While it isn’t perhaps at the same level as other underappreciated works (such as The Wrong Man), it’s probably even more fascinating. It is certainly rich in subtext and one’s experience is enhanced exponentially with each viewing.

Confession - Father Logan 2

The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This artwork seems to utilize vintage promotional material (though it isn’t the same artwork used for the film’s original one sheet). It really looks quite fabulous!

The menu utilizes the same art that is on the cover, and it is accompanied by an excerpt from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score.

Menu

All of this makes for a presentation that is much better than what one usually expects with home video releases (especially for older catalogue titles).

Confession - Otto Keller

Picture Quality: 

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins 

This is an incredibly gorgeous transfer of I Confess. Fine detail that went unseen in the previous DVD release of the film can now be admired in all its intended glory. Contrast is also wonderfully rich with deep blacks that never seem to crush detail. The film has a noir-esque quality that demands well rendered blacks with a sharp rendering of all the shades of gray that lies in between the lightest and darkest areas of the frame. It is nice to see that the transfer doesn’t disappoint on this issue. There is a healthy layer of grain that betrays the film’s celluloid source, but many film buffs will see this as a good thing. It is certainly preferable to overzealous DNR. There doesn’t seem to be any distracting digital anomalies that could be distracting to the viewer. This is a truly lovely transfer.

Otto Confesses to Alma

Sound Quality: 

4 of 5 MacGuffins 

The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is surprisingly clean for a film released in 1953. Dialogue is consistently crisp and clear, and this is married with well rendered ambience and intelligible sound effects. This is important, because Alfred Hitchcock uses sound in very interesting ways. The sounds are realistic and draw viewers into the film. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is given adequate room to breathe for a 2.0 mix, but one must qualify this statement to indicate that one must consider when the film was shot. This isn’t the sort of dynamic track that one might expect to find on a Blu-ray release of a contemporary film. It is simply a faithful rendering of the film’s source elements.

Anne Baxter as Ruth

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Hitchcock’s Confession: A Look at ‘I Confess’ – (SD) – (20:39)

Laurent Bouzereau provides another quasi “making of” documentary that provides more commentary than actual “making of” information (although one can see a small amount of rare color “behind the scenes” footage of the cast and crew shooting the dream sequence). Pat Hitchcock even shares some brief memories about visiting the production in Quebec. However, this is really more of an appreciation of the film that slowly turns into a love letter to the late Montgomery Clift. Jack Larson (a friend of Clift’s) shares information about his friend’s experiences on the film as the other participants celebrate his performance. It is always engaging and certainly appreciated, and the generalized critical commentary by Peter Bogdanovich, Bill Krohn, Richard Schickel, and Robert Osborne might enrich the casual viewer’s appreciation of the film. It is certainly worth the viewer’s time.

Gala Canadian Premiere for ‘I Confess’ – (SD) – (00:56)

Warner Brothers also includes a vintage newsreel about the Canadian premiere of the film. One can see Alfred Hitchcock and Anne Baxter arriving at two different premieres. It is obviously a piece of vintage promotional fluff, but the vintage nature of the piece makes this a rather interesting addition to the disc.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:47)

The trailer is also happily included on the disc. This is a rather typical example of trailers from this era, but many will be interested to see how the marketing department attempted to sell this film to audiences.

Father Logan

Final Words:

I Confess is for audiences with a predilection for dark allegorical mood pieces. While it isn’t a typical Hitchcock offering, it is well worth one’s time. Warner Brother’s new Blu-ray release is the perfect way to view the film on one’s home entertainment system.

Review by: Devon Powell

Father Logan - Otto Keller's Final Confession

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Variety, December 31, 1952)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, March 23, 1953)

Staff Writer (The Times, April 20, 1953)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

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 Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

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

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

Blu-ray Review: The Wrong Man

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Release Date: January 26, 2016

Region: Region A

Length: 01:45:20

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio

Alternate Audio:

2.0 French Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Castellano) Dolby Digital

2.0 Spanish (Latino) Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish (Castellano), Spanish (Latino), Czech, Polish

Ratio: 1.85:1

Bitrate: 32.91 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously released and is still available in a DVD edition.

Title

“On about 5:30 on the evening of last Jan. 14 a 43-year old nightclub musician named Balestrero mounted the steps of his home, a modest stucco two-family house at 41-30 73rd St. in Queens, a borough of the City of New York, and took out h. is key. As he did so, he heard a hail from across the dark street: ‘Hey, Chris!’ Balestrero turned curiously. His first name was Christopher, but he is known to his family and friends as ‘Manny,’ a shortening of his middle name Emanuel. Three men came up to him out of the murky shadows of a winter evening. They said they were police officers and showed him badges clipped to wallets.

Balestrero, experiencing a little quiver of uneasiness, asked what they wanted. The detectives ordered him to come to the 110th precinct station. They were polite, firm and uninformative. Balestrero became alarmed… His conscience was clear, and the detectives were polite, but their inexorable manner was frightening.

Without even going in to tell his wife that he had returned from an afternoon visit with his mother in Union City, N.J., Balestrero accompanied the three detectives to the precinct station, and then on a tour of a dozen Queens liquor and drug stores and delicatessens. At each stop, the routine was the same. Balestrero was instructed to go into the store and walk to the counter and back under the scrutiny of the proprietor. As they drove between stores, the detectives talked with Balestrero of inconsequential things like television programs. They assured him that if he had done nothing he had nothing to fear.

On their return to the station the detectives told him what it was all about… Up to this point the train of events had the somnambulistic quality of a bad dream. Now it became a nightmare.” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

It is easy to picture the portly director with a twinkle in his eyes as he read Brean’s text. As a matter of fact, one might mistake these paragraphs for a rough treatment outline for the eventual screenplay. This isn’t the case at all. “A Case of Identity” was simply an article about a tragic mistake that nearly ruined a man’s life. It was merely a coincidence that it touched upon some of Alfred Hitchcock’s pet themes. Herbert Brean was, however, commissioned to work with the director on a 69 page treatment in the June of 1955.

June 29, 1953 - Posed Photograph of real Manny - Life Mag

This is a posed photograph of real the real Manny Balestrero taken for “Life” Magazine. The photo re-enacts Manny’s apprehension by the police.

Actually, the article was adapted as the subject for an 60-minute episode of “Robert Montgomery Presents” in 1954, but the episode was nowhere near as chilling (or as brilliantly rendered) as Alfred Hitchcock’s film. He remained faithful to the facts contained in Brean’s article, and even did exhaustive additional research into the case in order to ensure fidelity to Balestrero’s unique story. Hitchcock became consumed with minute details, and this concern can be seen in the final product.

As a matter of fact, Hitchcock had been secretly longing to make a more down-to-earth story (having been inspired by Italian Neo-realist films). Balestrero’s story seemed the perfect subject for him to achieve this goal.

The Wrong Man offered Hitchcock a real-life incident—involving an Italian American—that would enable him to continue his lifelong critique of the judicial system. It gave him an opportunity to adopt an ‘unmistakably documentary’ approach, in his words—a radical challenge for the director… He wanted to tell the story exactly as it had transpired, with minimal dramatic or cinematic embellishment.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

shooting a cameo that never ended up in the film

Alfred Hitchcock’s commitment to the actual events, and his respect for the story led him to scrape his usual cameo appearance. He added an introductory prologue to the film instead.

Hitchcock himself elaborated on the film’s fidelity to the actual events in great detail during his lengthy interview with François Truffaut years later. He even gave a specific example:

“…For the sake of authenticity everything was minutely reconstructed with the people who were actually involved in that drama. We even used some of them in some of the episodes and, whenever possible, relatively unknown actors. We shot the locations where the events really took place. Inside the prison we observed how the inmates handle their bedding and their clothes; then we found an empty cell for Fonda and we made him handle the routines exactly as the inmates had done. We also used the actual psychiatric rest home to which his wife was sent and had the actual doctors playing themselves.

But here’s an instance of what we learn by shooting a film in which all scenes are authentically reconstructed. At the end, the real guilty party is captured while he’s trying to rob a delicatessen, through the courage of the lady owner. I imagined that the way to do that scene was to have the man go into the store take out his gun and demand the contents of the cash drawer. The lady would manage in some way to sound the alarm, or there might be a struggle of some kind in which the thief was pinned down. Well, what really took place—and this is the way we did it in the picture—is that the man walked into the shop and asked the lady for some frankfurters and some ham. As she passed him to get behind the counter, he held his gun in his pocket and aimed it at her. The woman had in her hand a large knife to cut ham with. Without losing her nerve, she pointed the point of the knife against his stomach, and as he stood there, taken aback, she stamped her foot twice on the floor. The man, rather worried, said, ‘Take it easy, lady.’ But the woman, remaining surprisingly calm, didn’t budge an inch and didn’t say a word. The man was so taken aback by her sang-froid that he couldn’t think of what to do next. A;; of a sudden the woman’s husband, warned by her stamping, came up from the cellar and grabbed the thief by the shoulders to push him into a corner of the shop against the food shelves while his wife called the police. The thief, thoroughly scared, began to whine: ‘Let me go. My wife and kids are waiting for me.’ I loved that line; it’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t dream of writing into a scenario, and even if it occurred to you, you simply wouldn’t dare use it.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Fidelity was probably the issue that Hitchcock, Angus MacPhail, and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson discussed most during the writing sessions. Minute details were discussed at length. No detail was too mundane for Hitchcock. He wanted to know how many people would have been in a subway station at 4 o’clock in the morning, what time a five-year-old would go to bed, precise police procedure, the order of events, and what the principal and ancillary participants in this real-life story were thinking and doing at every point in the story.

“When Anderson placed the scene where Manny is booked and fingerprinted too early in the script, Hitchcock gently reminded the writer of ‘the actual order of events.’ When Anderson wrote a speech in which a juror interrupted the proceedings to admit he has already reached a guilty conclusion before hearing all the evidence, Hitchcock praised Anderson’s writing, but said he couldn’t use the speech in the film. Anderson had taken too much license, and the speech as written was fictitious—‘a major contradiction of the actual events, and could be so easily used in hostile criticism.’ Whenever the team hit a dry spell, they returned to the actual people. Re-interviewing them for new ideas.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

This isn’t to say that minute details weren’t slightly altered for structuring purposes (or for points of clarity). There were small changes made if they could be altered without betraying the overall reality of any given moment. Of course, the biggest change made from the actual events was the text-based epilogue that was added to the final shot that assured audiences of Rose’s recovery. Rose had not fully recovered at the time the film was released. Audiences of the era expected happy resolutions.

Crook and Victim

This is a comparison of Balestrero and the real criminal that was published in “Life” Magazine.

Actual Stick-up Note and Manny's Note

A comparison between the original stick-up note and Manny’s note was also published with the “Life” Magazine article. This became a key element in the film.

Hitchcock has also been criticized for including a scene that shows the real culprit incriminating himself just as Manny begins to pray, but Balestrero’s strong catholic faith was suggested in the Brean article more than once. (In fact, Hitchcock discovered that Manny’s mother did urge her son to pray for strength after the mistrial.) The first suggestion of his faith in prayer occurred while Manny was waiting in a small jail cell.

“…He could not sleep. A religious man, he spent most of the night in prayer, much of it on his knees. He wondered what would happen to him…” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

The next example is even more suggestive (and is also dramatized in Hitchcock’s film version).

“…The first girl was asked I the holdup man was in the courtroom and, if he was, to step down and place her hand on his shoulder. The girl pointed out Balestrero, but when she tried to touch his shoulder she almost fainted from fear. It obviously impressed the jury. After that, the other girl witnesses were asked to point him out, and one after another they did. Balestrero again was seized with a wild desire to stand up and shout. ‘It’s a horrible feeling, having someone accuse you. You can’t imagine what was inside of me. I prayed for a miracle.

And a miracle—of sorts—happened. On the third day of the trial Juror No. 4, a man named Lloyd Espenschied, rose suddenly in the jury box… ‘Judge, do we have to listen to all this?’ The question implied a presupposition of the defendant’s guilt by a juror—a violation of his responsibility to refrain from any conclusion until all the evidence is in. It gave the defense an opportunity to move for a mistrial…” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

It isn’t a huge stretch to assume that the stress of having to go through the process of another trial would lead to more prayer. This is an established habit of the real-life Manny. In light of this, it seems that those who have criticized this particular scene are merely nitpicking.

Climactic Prayer

In an article published in a 1957 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut had compared The Wrong Man favorably to Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné a Mort s’est échappé). He even went as far as to say that the film is probably his best film, the one that goes farthest in the direction he chose so long ago.” However, his opinion seems to have changed somewhat in the decade that followed. In his 1966 interview with Hitchcock, Truffaut suggested that the film suffered because “the esthetics of the documentary” was in conflict with Alfred Hitchcock’s signature subjective style. He uses the moment where the camera spins around Henry Fonda in his cell as an example. This seems an unfair statement, because the power of The Wrong Man comes from Hitchcock’s subjective treatment. The story certainly has a dramatic power on its own, but the subjective treatment makes the audience feel as if they have been personally violated in the same manner that Manny Balestrero was violated (and it does this without taking away from the film’s authenticity).

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s more annoying personal idiosyncrasies was his habit of adopting the prevailing critical opinion about his films. This certainly seems to be the case here. Since The Wrong Man wasn’t the giant hit he had become accustomed to, he deemed the film a failure and tried to remove himself from it as much as possible in interviews. After Truffaut’s criticism, he responded with the following:

“The industry was in a crisis at that time, and since I’d done a lot of work for Warner Brothers, I made this picture for them without taking any salary for my work. It was their property.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

It is true that the director made the film without taking a salary, but analytical minds must question whether Hitchcock did this purely out of kindness to the studio. After all, Warner Brothers owned the film rights to Balestrero’s story. It seems quite possible that Hitchcock’s decision could have stemmed from a sincere personal desire to adapt that property into a motion picture. It seems likely that Hitchcock is merely distancing himself from the film due to Truffaut’s negative commentary. There is a passage in Patrick McGilligan’s biography of the director that seems to support this theory:

“Warner’s was actually ambivalent about The Wrong Man until Hitchcock offered to waive his salary, an offer calculated to win him the go-ahead to make the picture. It’s hard to think of very many other directors in Hollywood history who have volunteered to work for free this way, at the peak of their success. Yet such a director was entirely in character for Hitchcock, who had often ignored money to make the films that interested him.” –Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

A Happy Family

The director had other complaints about the film in the years that followed the film’s release. The most notable of these concern the character of Rose Balestrero. Hitchcock claimed that he felt that Manny’s story collapsed when Rose’s mental faculties began to deteriorate, and he often cited this as one of the film’s weaknesses. On the contrary, Rose’s breakdown is what carries the story to the trial. It has the effect of keeping the audience with Manny, and it is one of the most interesting things about the film.

The most poignant scenes are those that concern Rose, and we never feel Manny’s pain more than when he is worried for his wife. A perfect example is a scene that seems to have been plucked from the Brean article:

“…There Balestrero confronted the man who more than anyone else was responsible for his 15 weeks of torment. Daniell was handcuffed to a chair. He looked up at Balestrero once and did not look again. There was a fleeting resemblance between the two men, particularly in the set and expression of their eyes. Balestrero asked, ‘Do you realize what you have done to my wife?’ Daniell did not answer.” –Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

Let there be no mistake that these elements carry the audience through to the end of the film in a way that would have been nearly impossible to achieve otherwise. Frankly, this seems to be yet another scapegoat utilized to help Hitchcock distance himself from the film in the public’s mind. The root of this criticism probably stems from a number of reviews that suggested that Rose’s story was one of the film’s weaker elements. One such review was published in The Times:

“…In any event, the second half of the film, which sees Manny out on bail, hunting desperately for witnesses which will establish his alibi—while his wife, who is troubled with feelings of guilt, declines into apathy and eventually has to be sent to a mental institution, lacks the hypnotic fascination of the first.” –The Times (February 25, 1957)

It is simply another example of Hitchcock’s tendency to adopt critical opinion as his own. There isn’t any evidence that would suggest that Hitchcock walked onto the set feeling that this aspect of the script was deficient in any way. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. The director had cast Vera Miles (who he had under personal contract) to play the role of Rose Balestrero, and he had spent a lot of time developing this aspect of the story.

On March 06, 1956, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the following to Maxwell Anderson:

“I have always personally felt (whether I am correct or not would be or you and Angus to say) that the scenes of the preparation of the defense should begin to be interrupted by an unexpected element, i.e. the decline of Rose, so that the mechanical details of alibis, etc. become obscured by this growing process o Rose going insane. So that by the time we reach the eve of the trial the drama of Rose has taken over.” –Alfred Hitchcock (as published in “Hitchcock and Adaptation: On the Page and Screen,” edited by Mark Osteen)

Not only did Alfred Hitchcock not mind that Rose’s story took over the narrative at this point, it was his intention that this happen. Without Rose’s breakdown, this part of the film would be rather dull. Hitchcock certainly realized this and added minor elements to the story to spice up the drama.

“…In this same letter, Hitchcock mentions another small but telling addition to the sequence in which the Balestreros hunt down witnesses who can testify that they were out of town during the first holdup. As the couple track down a witness by the name of La Marca, Hitchcock and MacPhail insert ‘two callous giggling teenagers’ announcing to Manny and Rose that the witness has died. Then the hapless Balestreros learn that a second witness, Mr. Molinelli, has also died. ‘There’s our alibi! Alibi! Oh, perfect! Complete!’ responds Rose. Anderson echoed Rose’s words, praising the insertion of the giggling girls and declaring that the scene was ‘beautifully handled.’ (Anderson to Hitchcock 03/17/56).” –Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation)

Madness 2

A lot has been written about Hitchcock’s treatment of Vera Miles during the production of “The Wrong Man.” Miles always claimed that these things are untrue. “What he, Spoto, said about “The Wrong Man” and “Psycho” is all wrong. It’s the kind of book in which the author waits until a famous man dies, and then hits him with what can only be guesses… Anyone who knows me knows that I would never put up with that sort of thing. There was always a great deal of respect between Hitchcock and me. Spoto says that [Hitchcock] rehearsed me for nine hours a day on “The Wrong Man” which is nonsense. He expected people to be good, and never rehearsed them at all. When you signed a contract with Hitchcock, it stipulated the number of hours a day you would work. And as for playing casting couch to get the role, I’d have told him to go to hell. Neither of us had time for that sort of thing.” – Vera Miles

Hitchcock’s tendency to disregard films that do not meet with overwhelming success does his work a grave disservice. Critical opinion has a way of evolving, and Hitchcock’s dismissal of The Wrong Man has made this evolution rather difficult. When he told Truffaut to “file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks, he was giving future critics and scholars permission to do the same.

This is especially unfortunate considering that the unenthusiastic reviews that flooded newspapers, trade journals, and magazines upon the film’s release were colored by a rather narrow-minded expectation of what a Hitchcock film should be. The critics were conditioned to expect exciting films with a dose of macabre humor. The Wrong Man doesn’t deliver these elements. Instead, audiences experienced a deliberately paced emotional drama. The film’s sober tone was not what the critics wanted from Hitchcock. For example, a December 22, 1956 review published in Harrison’s reports complained that although Henry Fonda and Vera Miles were excellent in their roles, stories about human suffering are, as a general rule, depressing, and this one is no exception…”

A.H. Weiler was similarly disenchanted with the film:

“The theory that truth can be more striking than fiction is not too forcefully supported by the saga of The Wrong Man, which was unfolded at the Paramount on Saturday.

Although he is recounting in almost every clinical detail startling near-miscarriage of justice, Alfred Hitchcock has fashioned a somber case history that merely points a finger of accusation. His principals are sincere and they enact a series of events that actually are part of New York’s annals of crime but they rarely stir the emotions or make a viewer’s spine tingle. Frighteningly authentic, the story generates only a modicum of drama…

…Mr. Hitchcock is not setting a precedent with The Wrong Man. Facts have provided fiction for many films before as in Let Us Live, in which Mr. Fonda also was starred. Mr. Hitchcock has done a fine and lucid job with the facts in The Wrong Man but they have been made more important than the hearts and dramas of the people they affect.”A.H. Weiler (New York Times, December 24, 1956)

This seems to be a rather unfair conclusion on Weiler’s part, but one must remember the sort of film he was expecting. One wonders why his contemporaries dismissed him for not telling realistic and socially relevant stories only to become disappointed when he gives them such a film (as he certainly did with The Wrong Man).

 Scholarly opinion hadn’t changed much when Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky published a book of critical essays entitled, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock in 1976. Harris and Lasky seem to have taken a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s book, because they also singled out Rose’s story as the films primary weakness. It is worth questioning whether or not these men would have come to this conclusion had it not been one of Alfred Hitchcock’s repeated interview testimonies. Original ideas are rare (especially in film criticism). They were also quick to follow the lead of many critics that came before them in condemning Hitchcock’s climactic prayer scene.

The Wrong Man has a newsreel quality to it, with starkly lit black-and-white photography and real-life details that give it authenticity. When Hitchcock switches gears and no longer emphasizes Christopher Balestrero’s story, turning instead to his wife’s, he loses the audience’s interest. The intensity of the drama, horrifying because of its reality, diminishes because the chief focal point has been complicated with more details than the audience wants to consider

It is precisely because of this twist in the plot, the focusing on Rose’s mental breakdown that explains why Manny turns to prayer at the end. He prays for a miracle. With double exposure, he superimposes the holdup man’s face over Manny’s as he is praying. The documentary flavor of the film has been lost and religious motifs, harking back to I Confess, take over. The Kafkaesque nightmare of reality that Hitchcock has maintained has turned into a moralistic question.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

It is high time for the film community to re-evaluate this neglected film. If any other director had tackled the same material in the same manner, it would be considered a masterpiece of the genre. This is a bold statement about a bold film that deserves fresh analysis.

0136

 The Presentation:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The disc is protected in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork. This artwork seems to utilize vintage promotional material (though it isn’t the same artwork used for the film’s original one sheet).

The menu utilizes the same art that is on the cover, and it is accompanied by music from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the film.

Menu

There is absolutely no room for complaint about Warner’s presentation. Everything really looks quite fabulous!

ss

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Black and white cinematography has the capacity to look truly incredible in high definition, and Warner Brothers has offered up a transfer that successfully demonstrates this. The image showcases a lot of fine detail with very nice contrast. The rich blacks do not crush detail, and there is a fully rendered range of greyscale between this and the white. This is a good thing, because much of the film takes place in darkness. There is a healthy layer of grain that betrays the film’s celluloid source, but many film buffs will see this as a good thing. It is certainly preferable to overzealous DNR. There doesn’t seem to be any distracting digital anomalies, but there is some hyperactive grain fluctuation on occasion. This is the single flaw in an otherwise lovely transfer.

Screenshot 2

 Sound Quality:

 4 of 5 MacGuffins

The English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is also quite nice, although many modern viewers might wish for a more robust soundtrack. Dialogue is consistently crisp and clear, and this is married with well rendered ambience and intelligible sound effects. This is important, because Alfred Hitchcock uses sound in very interesting ways. The sounds are realistic and draw viewers into the world of Manny Balestrero. It is nice to see that the sound transfer doesn’t interfere. Bernard Herrmann’s jazz-influenced score is given adequate room to breathe for a 2.0 mix, but there may be a few moments in the film that could use a bit more room. Overall, this is an excellent sound transfer for a film that was made in 1956.

Screenshot 3

Special Features:

3 of 5 MacGuffins

Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man – (SD) – 00:20:19

Laurent Bouzereau’s Guilt Trip isn’t comprehensive enough to qualify as a “making of” documentary, and this is somewhat disappointing when one compares it to the excellent documentaries that he prepared for Hitchcock’s Universal films. Paul Sylbert (the film’s art director) offers viewers a minimal amount of general information, but this information is always quite interesting. Bouzereau expands on this information by utilizing interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel, Robert Osborne, and Richard Franklin. These gentlemen offer their general thoughts and feelings about the film, and this adds small doses of insight to the proceedings. This is certainly superior to the usual EPK nonsense that appears on most Blu-rays. Hitchcock fans should be happy that it has been carried over from the 2004 DVD release.

Theatrical Trailer  – 00:02:35

The theatrical trailer for The Wrong Man is narrated by Alfred Hitchcock himself (as many trailers for his later films would be). It is certainly more interesting than many trailers, and it is wonderful to have it included on this disc.

ss2

Final Words:

The Wrong Man is a seriously underrated gem that deserves to be studied and discussed. This new Blu-ray edition of the film is the best way that fans can see this film on any home video format, and it comes highly recommended.

Review by: Devon Powell

Epilogue
SOURCE MATERIAL:

Herbert Brean (A Case of Identity, Life Magazine, June 29, 1953)

Unknown Author (Balestrero’s Nightmare, Life Magazine, February 01, 1954)

Unknown Author (The Wrong Man, Harrison’s Reports, December 22, 1956)

Unknown Author (Hitchcock and A New Form of Film Suspense, The Times, February 25, 1957)

A.H. Weiler (New Format for Hitchcock, New York Times, December 24, 1956)

François Truffaut (Cahiers du Cinéma, 1957)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

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

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

Mark Osteen (Hitchcock and Adaptation, 2014)