I’ve never watched Alfred Hitchcock: The 1940s

It’s been a long time since I last wrote about any movies, but I decided last night that it was confession time. I’ve mentioned this to a few people but I recently came to the realisation that I’d never (knowingly, at least) watched an Alfred Hitchcock film. There are others on this BFI list that I’ve literally just discovered (and I’ll get around to addressing that), but this realisation came from two things. The first was his inclusion on my “Top 100 Must-See Movies” poster that I need to carry on working my way through, but the thought also occurred whilst I was browsing Amazon looking for something to buy with a gift voucher I’d received for my birthday back in June. I don’t tend to buy from Amazon if I can help it, but it’s more convenient for family members to buy me a gift card if they want to get me anything. Even so, I was struggling for what to buy, I get all my books, comics and manga from local shops if I can help it, with games I prefer digital over physical, apart from for specific titles, just because space is at a premium in my household. Likewise, I have a Spotify Family subscription, plus the space issue, so I don’t buy CD’s any more (and wouldn’t trust my kids around a record player, sorry kids). It’s rare I buy films because I have both subscriptions to Netflix, Prime Video (as part of my phone contract) and Disney+.

However, whilst browsing, I saw a boxset of Alfred Hitchcock movies, this one in fact, and decided it was about time I got around to watching some, especially as the poster I mentioned previously has Vertigo on it.

As of last night, I’ve watched three of the fourteen films included. I’m working through in order of release, though there are films released between the ones in the boxset that I’ll have to watch in other ways eventually (there are notable omissions too, such as North by Northwest), so, what do I think of those three films?

 

Saboteur (1942) is about a factory worker, Barry Kane, who works at an aircraft factory. Whilst working a fire starts at the factory and claims the life of his friend, Mason. Kane suspects a man named Fry, who handed him a fire extinguisher when he was trying to fight the flames, though the extinguisher was filled with gasoline. Investigators interrogate Kane, who tells them of Fry, but they find no man under that name under the list of employers at the factory. And so Kane flees from the investigators and takes it upon himself to search for this man named Fry, ultimately he uncovers a plot involving saboteur’s targeting key US construction works and a plot to blow up a newly built U.S. Navy Battleship that is set to launch from the Brooklyn Dockyards in New York.

As a place to start watching Hitchcock, this probably wasn’t the best. the plot moves along at a tidy pace, it certainly didn’t feel like it was dragging at all. The two key actors Robert Cummings as Barry Kane and Priscilla Lane as love interest Patricia Martin, are both rather likeable. The dialogue was certainly of its time, especially comments aimed towards Patricia, which were particularly condescending. I think stretching the film across multiple locations didn’t really work, I understand the reasoning for it, but it just felt like they were moving from one film set to another, even though there were elements of being on the road in between.

The next disc was Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Charles Oakley is awoken by the landlady whom he rents a room from, two men have been asking after him, so for some reason, he decides to flee town and visit his sister and her family.

Once he arrives, he’s doted upon by the family, in particular his eldest niece, Charlie Newton, who seems to literally believe the sun shines out of his arse despite the fact they’ve not seen him in years. Charles gifts Charlie an emerald ring, though she notices it has somebody else’s initials engraved upon it. He’s also carrying rather a lot of money. Later, two men appear at the Newton’s home claiming to be interviewers for a national survey, though they appear to be heavily interested in including Uncle Charles, despite him constantly trying to avoid them. He’s also taking newspaper clippings that Charlie discovers are reporting on a man who has been murdering rich widows. It’s not long before she begins to piece things together, and he confirms to her that he is one of the suspects, she begins to co-operate with the National Survey men (who obviously aren’t who they’re claiming to be) to help capture him.

Despite there only being a year between these first two films release (actually, their release dates are more like nine months apart), there’s a huge difference in the quality. Shadow of a Doubt feels more focused and much tighter, aside from the opening sequence, shooting is mostly kept to the same sleepy little town and a few locations within it: The Newton’s home, a bank and a bar, there may have been others but they all felt they belonged to the same place. Some of the performances from some elements of the cast were a bit over the top, in particular Mrs Newton, who spent the entire film flapping around and generally being really annoying, but the two core Charlies (Uncle Charlie and Charlotte, who preferred to be called Charlie) both put in pretty strong performances. From the very moment, we meet Uncle Charlie, there’s something shady about him, and that feeling is there through to the very end of the film. There’s some clever (for the time) foreshadowing, particular the use of black smoke and his almost predatory behaviour towards his eldest niece that made for uncomfortable viewing.

If there was an obvious improvement between Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt, then that improvement is ramped up by the time we get to Rope (1948). This is the third and final film from the 40s that features in this boxset and was released five years after the previous entry.

This one has a brief (compared to the previous two) plot synopsis, and that’s because it needs little more: Two former University Students murder a former classmate, then hold a dinner party for people that were close to all three in an attempt to prove their intellectual superiority. 

Rope was so, so clever, I loved every moment of it. This film takes the whole murder mystery concept and turns it on its head. There is no mystery here, we know that Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) killed their friend, David, and placed his body in a chest. The fun from this film is seeing how the pair handle things after the event. Choosing to hide the body in a chest, they invite friends over to a dinner party and leave the expectation that David is supposed to be in attendance to stew as the rest of the cast become increasingly worried as to his whereabouts, not knowing that he is in the chest they’re all commenting on being a weird place to use as a serving table (especially considering the fuss the maid makes over them not using the perfectly fine serving table that is already in the apartment). Dall and Granger put in excellent contrasting performances as Brandon delights in playing this game whilst Phillip becomes increasingly intoxicated and confrontational.

However, it’s not only this reversal of genre tropes that makes Rope interesting. As I watched I noticed that some of the camera work looked shakey, and wondered if this was Hitchcock trying to do something specific or if it was just due to the technology at his disposal on this film. Well, in reality, it’s a bit of both. Discussing the film with others I was given a couple of links that specifically discuss the camera work. Unlike a lot of films of the era, the footage is more dynamic, we follow characters around the apartment and the cast rarely perform to a static camera. Hitchcock intended to make a film where the editing process was all but invisible and honestly, if you aren’t looking for the edits, then you’d barely notice them. I won’t say how he achieves this as they’re very noticeable once you know the techniques he uses, but the overall effect places the viewer in the room as a third party who knows the truth and just has to sit and watch the tension increase, it’s a fantastic piece of work.

 

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