Alfred Hitchcock: The Golden Years
After “Notorious” in 1946, Alfred Hitchcock made a series of films which didn’t do well at the box office. And while some may argue the experimental value of “Rope, a movie set in real time and with no editing save for the linking together of the nine, 10 minute sections of film, Hitch had clearly lost the public’s eye. And films like “Stage Fright” and “The Paradine Case”, starring Gregory Peck in his second and final collaboration with Hitchcock fell flat with movie audiences at that time.
But just as it seemed Hitch was fading away, along came “Strangers on a Train” in 1951, a brilliant, exciting film with a classic Hitchcock like twist where the two leads of the film meet on a train and playfully plan to kill the other’s nemesis. A “criss cross” as it were. The film did gangbusters at the box office and began a glorious run of exciting, thrilling films that ended with “The Birds” in 1963.
Along the way, Hitch remade “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, which was quite a success the first time around in 1934, and such remarkable films as “Psycho”, “To Catch a Thief”, and “North by Northwest”. And Hitchcock himself grew into such a recognizable star that he hosted his own TV series which ran for several years.
Here are two more Hitchcock films from that remarkable era that may perk your interest in this Master of Suspense. I selected these two movies not only because they best represent his works from this time, but also because I caught both of them during a 1984 revival which they were replayed on the big screen at my local theater. Even though both prints were in less than ideal condition, the movies themselves fueled my interest in Hitchcock which still resides with me today.
Jimmy Stewart plays Jeffers, a photographer with a broken leg who’s stuck in his quaint apartment during the blistering summer heat. And when he’s not distracted by his nurse or his very attractive girlfriend …., played to absolute perfection by Grace Kelly, Jimmy’s mind wanders to view his neighbors and seeing little slices of their lives.
One night, he hears some commotion going on in another apartment. Has a murder taken place or is his imagination getting the better of him?
This is perhaps Hitchcock’s finest film. It certainly places in the top 3 of his works. Interestingly enough, it borrows a page from his less successful effort, “Rope” by being rather experimental in nature. The entire film takes place on a single set, a rather large set from where we see an apartment building across the courtyard and many of the occupants as Jimmy watches. The camera, with just a few very short cuts, never leaves his apartment. We see it all from his point of view, save for one very important scene when Jimmy is asleep.
The film grows in tension like a snake coiling around its victim as the evidence of a murder becomes more apparent...to Jimmy that is, it seems even his girlfriend is hesitate to believe him, at least for a while.
There are some classic scenes in this film. One of the best has to do with a minor character called “Miss Lonely Hearts”, a middle-aged woman whose loneliness grows to the point where she might take her own life. And the final, climactic scene of Jimmy confronting the “might be” killer in his own apartment includes a brilliant use of special optical effects.
Once again Jimmy Stewart is the star. This time Jimmy is a San Francisco police detective who discovers through an unfortunate accident that he suffers from vertigo. While recovering an old school acquaintance of his asks him to watch his wife (Kim Novak) while he is away. He fears that his wife is becoming possessed by the spirit of one of her ancestors that is long dead. Jimmy follows her around and saves her from a suicide attempt. It’s not long before both Jimmy and Kim fall in love, but before their relationship can truly gel, she runs to the top of a church tower and leaps to her death.
Heartbroken and devastated, it takes Jimmy months to recover until one day on the streets of San Francisco (no pun intended) he meets a girl who bears a strong resemblance to the dead woman and they begin a courtship until...
Easily Hitchcock’s most personal film and one with themes as fascinating as they are disturbing. It’s one thing to fall in love with someone else’s wife, it’s quite another to long for someone who is dead and to try and recreate her with another woman. This total obsession drives the last half of the picture and leads to an unforgettable ending.
For the past 15 years or so, this film has been regularly on top of most critics’ list as Hitchcock’s best film. I don’t know if I fully agree with that assessment as the first hour of the picture is a little slow. But the second hour certainly is his finest as the tension builds dramatically as the events unfold.
The opening title credits and “nightmare” sequence are quite creative, visually stunning and surprisingly not dated as most effects from that time are. Hitchcock certainly knew how to use his locations as the Golden Gate bridge makes for a wonderful, dramatic background during the suicide attempt.
The cinematography is outstanding and very creative, when Jimmy first sees Kim Novak (who is absolutely stunning by the way), the light brightens all around her and from Jimmy’s reaction we know he has fallen in love. But the real star may be the music, romantic, longing, and played right to the edge, this is Bernard Herrman’s finest score with an unforgettable title theme.
Rear Window and Vertigo are two timeless classics from that golden age of Hitchcock, certainly worthy of your collection and both are yet to be released in Blu-Ray form. A shame really as Vertigo alone would be stunning when seen in full HD quality.
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