Alfred Hitchcock: The World War Two Years
After making “Jamaca Inn” in 1939, Alfred Hitchcock was lured to America by famed Hollywood producer David O. Selznick to make “Rebecca”, a film that Hitch had failed to find enough financing for to do in England.
“Rebecca” would go on to earn a Best Picture Oscar, though Hitch would never get one for himself. From “Rebecca” (1940) through “Notorious (1946) Hitch had a remarkable run of creative, exciting films that arguably exceeded any other point in his career. These films brimmed with the energy from his British years, yet had the proper financing to fulfill his vision.
What follows are three films from this time period that I consider to be essential for Hitchcock fans. If you like them, then I’d certainly recommend the aforementioned “Rebecca”, the experimental “Lifeboat” (entirely shot within a lifeboat), “Shadow of a Doubt” (perhaps his best film), and “Spellbound” complete with a nightmare sequence fashioned by Salvidor Dali himself.
No, I didn't forget "Mr. and Mrs. Smith", another effort starring Joel McCrea that is more of a comedic effort from Hitch. And "Suspicion", the first Hitchcock film starring Cary Grant which is a wonderful effort undone somewhat by an ending enforced by the studio.
Ace reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is sent on assignment to Europe to cover the breakdown of peace talks which will lead to World War 2.
This is the first American film Hitchcock did using his classic plot devices. The film is brimming with energy, the comic timing perfect, and McCrea makes for a wonderful lead as he stumbles from one close encounter to another. Most famously, the “windmill” sequence when he notices the fans of a windmill turning against the wind.
Foreign Correspondent earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and one for Albert Bassermann who plays “Van Meer”, an important diplomat in the peace negotiations. Bassermann’s nomination is rather remarkable in that he didn’t speak English and had to learn his lines phonetically and he’s on screen for less than 15 minutes.
Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) has just watched his friend die in an aircraft factory fire, yet he is the one blamed for setting it. This begins a cross country chase as Barry avoids the authorities while tracking down those responsible for the heinous crime of sabotage.
I’ll admit that this is my favorite Hitchcock film. If Robert Cummings isn’t the perfect lead, he’s pretty darn close as he travels through the desert, sneaks aboard a circus train, and winds up in New York with an attractive girl on his arm (the fetching Priscilla Lane). This is perhaps the most fervent patriotic film of Hitch’s career, most notably when Lane’s uncle gives a speech about the importance of our American justice system and aboard the circus car filled with “freaks” that care more about democracy (save for one rather “fascist” individual) than fearing Kane.
“Saboteur” ends in classic Hitchcock fashion atop the Statue of Liberty using a rather advanced film technique for the time. If you happen to purchase the “Masterpiece” DVD version of the film, Norman Lloyd (who plays Fry, one of the saboteurs) describes the effect in wonderful detail.
American agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) approaches a society girl Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) after her father has been convicted of treason. Devlin persuades Huberman to spy on a group of suspected Nazis in Rio de Janeiro lead by Alexander Sebastian (an always perfect Claude Rains) and his dominating mother (the icy Madame Konstantine).
“Notorious” represents the culmination of the classic Hitchcock technique. Exotic locations, characters with more than one objective, and the famous “McGuffin” (a term for what the characters are interested in only for the sake of having them interested in something) turns out to be uranium hidden in bottles of wine. Hitch himself appears far later in the film, about an hour in during the famous dining sequence. Hitchcock learned that audiences would sometimes miss important plot points while waiting for him to appear. So after this film, Hitch usually would make his appearance far earlier in the picture (a notable exception would be his last effort, “Family Plot”).
If the plot sounds somewhat familiar, you may be thinking of a more recent film like “Mission Impossible: 2”. But the original is far more suspenseful and flat-out better as Devlin and Huberman fall in love, yet Devlin loses all respect for her after she agrees to “marry” Sebastian, even though that’s what he wants her to do. Grant and Bergman make for an ideal couple and early in the picture they have one of the longest kissing scenes in movie history. But the film may ultimately belong to Rains, who actually makes us feel sympathy for this “notorious” Nazi. His final walk up the stairs is one for the ages.