Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - 1954

Arguably the first Hitchcock masterpiece, Rear Window plays perfectly to the director’s predilection for creating thrillers in confined spaces but pushes further than that to challenge audience preconceptions of voyeurism and the natural fascination with other people’s lives that draws audiences to the cinema. James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, an adventurous photographer confined to his apartment with a broken leg whose only source of entertainment is to spy on the neighbours in his apartment building until he becomes obsessed with the idea that one of them maybe a murderer. Shooting the block entirely from the perspective of Jeffries’ window, Hitchcock delights in putting the audience in the shoes of a peeping tom, never allowing us more than a distant view into the lives of Miss Torso (a girl prone to practicing dance routines in her underwear), Miss Lonely Hearts (a single lady fantasising about a dream date) and a grumpy salesman with a bedbound wife. Jeffries intentions are not salacious in any way but by forcing the audience to view everything from his limited perspective Hitchcock not only ratchets up the tension to excruciating levels but raises delicate questions about our own interest in watching people from afar, whether on the screen or off. Stewart is typically excellent as the grumpy Jeffries, his everyman persona ensuring that the character never comes across as creepy, but for once the normally relatable actor frustrates as much as he excites. Grace Kelly plays Jeffries’ girlfriend Lisa Fremont and the actress is a radiant delight from the very beginning; when she leans over Jeffries’s sleeping figure, the camera literally shudders with excitement, making it almost inexplicable that Jeffries is reluctant to spend time with her! Of course there is more to it than that and their relationship is the second reason why Rear Window is a masterpiece above and beyond its position as a great Hitchcock thriller. Charming, mischievous and devoted to Jeffries as well as being stunningly beautiful, Lisa epitomises the perfect woman – something that Jeffries in his insecurity does not know how to cope with and so whereas in most thrillers Stewart would sweep the girl of his feet, no questions asked, in Rear Window he can’t help holding back from Kelly’s affections until events prove him wrong. It may not be a conventional Hollywood relationship but in its depiction of a man afraid to commit, Rear Window has an underlying truth that is more honest than frankly most people expect from Hitchcock or indeed any film.

Dial M for Murder - Alfred Hitchcock - 1954

Adapted from a successful stage play by Frederick Knott, Dial M for Murder is a brilliantly gripping thriller from the Master of Suspense at the top of his game that showcases the director’s unique ability to create suspense within any setting. Hitchcock instinctively understands that what made the play so gripping was Knott’s razor sharp dialogue and so opts not to open up the play into a more cinematic world, instead keeping the action confined to one claustrophobic compartment and using carefully placed angles and well-timed edits to ratchet up the tension as Knott’s potentially murderous love triangle escalates out of control. Grace Kelly in her first film for Hitchcock is a delight, radiating innocent sincerity as she switches gears between husband and lover and bringing a vulnerable heart to the film when her world begins crashing down around her but for once she cannot steal the film from her co-stars. Robert Cummings as Kelly’s lover is just as bland as he was twelve years earlier in Hitchcock’s Saboteur; shamefully out-acted by everyone around him, even John Williams as an avuncular but cunning police inspector, Cummings cannot compete with the brilliant Ray Milland has Kelly’s charming but dangerous husband Tony Wendice. The very picture of devoted courtesy to his wife and her friend, Tony’s agenda rapidly becomes clear when he lures old school acquaintance Captain Lesgate (Anthony Dawson) to visit and in a brilliantly written and directed scene calmly blackmails him into murdering his wife. Dawson is excellent, slowly turning from cautious acquaintance to dangerous animal as Lesgate discovers Tony’s hand but Milland holds the scene, moving from charm to menace with one flick of his grey eyes whilst remaining disturbingly calm throughout. Of course not everything goes according to plan (although there is still a shockingly brutal death) but by then, even though the audience knows Tony’s intentions, Hitchcock subversively allows Milland to steal audience attention as he impressively improvises on his feet to turn the situation to his advantage, successfully stamping all over Hollywood archetypes of sympathetic good guys and hateful bad guys. The ending feels a little too pat after the complex plot machinations that have gone before but this is a minor niggle; the film may not be as ground breaking or revelatory as Hitchcock’s upcoming masterpieces but as an exercise in escalating tension and suspense Dial M for Murder is practically perfect.

Friday, 16 January 2015

I Confess - Alfred Hitchcock - 1953

A less successful thriller from Alfred Hitchcock’s golden age, I Confess is most notable for its controversial subject matter. Focusing on Father Logan (Montgomery Clift), a priest with a past who winds up accused of murder, the film examines the sacred act of confession and raises intriguing questions about the validity of the confessional seal when maintaining it puts the priest himself in grave danger. Haunted method man Clift delivers a typically moody performance as Logan but his introspective style does not sit well with Hitchcock’s suspense tricks. The director does his best to communicate the raging intensity of Father Logan’s dilemma – in one beautiful shot he walks hunched along the street whilst a statue of Jesus carrying his cross dominates the foreground – but Clift gives him almost nothing to work with but introverted glances and so even repeated close-ups of his beautiful face fail to engage the audience in the character and his dilemma. Given that the killer (O.E. Hasse) is revealed to Clift and the audience in the opening scene and he gets more cocksure and nasty as the film goes on, its hard not to become irritated with Father Logan for maintaining his silence and so the drama inherent in the original scenario ends up being flattened. An extended flashback narrated by Anne Baxter (showing none of the charisma that drove the fabulous All About Eve) that reveals a romantic history between her and Clift is prettily shot but it breaks up the flow of the story and neither actor convinces anyone that the romance was as meaningful as Clift’s straining eyes would have us believe. Hitchcock musters some suspense for a last act courtroom drama and achieves some nice moments earlier – in one breakfast table scene the camera deliberately focuses on the two characters NOT talking, whilst the Canadian city of Quebec is beautifully shot with some off-kilter angles and noir-style shadows – but he can otherwise do little with a script and actors that cannot decide if they are in a romantic melodrama or a suspense thriller. In another director’s canon this may stand up better but coming in Hitchcock’s golden age, sandwiched between Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder, I Confess is sadly a lesser picture that turns an intriguing premise into an indifferent story. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

David Copperfield - George Cukor - 1935

A faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ favourite novel David Copperfield, George Cukor’s film parades very nicely, and almost pedantically, through all the principle scenes and characters of Dickens' classic with nary a foot put wrong. The film’s principle weakness is in the depiction of the titular character. As a child Young David (Freddie Bartholomew) comes across as a snobby little mummy’s boy, pathetically desperate for his soppy mother’s (Elizabeth Allan) attention and irritatingly patronising to the lower class Pegotty family when he visits them and Yarmouth. As a man David (now played by Frank Lawton) is often equally pathetic, so desperate for the affections of his cooler friend Steerforth (Hugh Williams) and his drippy wife Dora (Maureen O’Sullivan) that he is frustratingly blind to their failings. This is largely accurate to the character Dickens created but without the author’s narrating voice to give colour and depth to David’s thoughts and actions the character maybe sweet and amusing but is hardly so sympathetic and relatable. In support Basil Rathbone gives a typically menacing performance as David’s stepfather Mr Murdstone and comedy legend W.C. Fields is a delightful choice to play the eccentric Wilkins Micawber (his attempt to walk across a rooftop whilst retaining shoes, cane and top hat is a highlight) but the standout is Edna May Oliver as David’s Aunt Betsey Trottwood. Oliver sails grandly through her every scene, hilariously confident in her own eccentric moral certainties but finds lovely moments of affectionate exasperation that subtly betray Betsey’s deep affection for her wayward nephew, lending David sympathy he might not otherwise get from the audience. Of course cramming an eventful life story into two hours means that other characters inevitably suffer and so whilst beautifully drawn Dickensian characters like Micawber and Aunt Betsey steal the film, sadly others like Mr Dick (Lennox Pawle) and Little Em'ly (Florine McKinney) are reduced to comic relief or mere ciphers, while key relationships like that of David and Steerforth are too slight to have any real impact. Consequently this lack of depth in some supporting characters, and lack of charisma in the lead, means that the film drags in places as David is paraded through various scenes as if Cukor’s priority is ticking narrative boxes rather than telling a good story. In the end though there is enough gentle charm to likely leave the viewer wanting to go away and read the book, and frankly with source material this good that's no bad thing. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Adam’s Rib - George Cukor - 1949

A high-powered battle of the sexes starring Hollywood’s golden couple Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Adam's Rib is as sharply funny as the very best comedies created in Hollywood’s Golden Age, but is likely to take audiences by surprise by underpinning the expected wisecracking comedy with a rather more serious debate about sexual equality. The stars play married lawyers who end up (much to Tracy’s chagrin) taking opposing sides in what should be an open-and-shot prosecution of a young woman (Judy Holliday in her breakout role) that tried to shoot her philandering husband (Tom Ewell). The case as Tracy frequently points out should be simple; the law is after all very clear about attempted murder and does not allow for mitigating circumstances but Hepburn sees it as an opportunity to make a stand for equality of justice between the sexes, defending Holliday on the grounds that society is instinctively more lenient to men who behave as she did. The contrast therefore between the good-natured marital sparring that defined Tracy and Hepburn’s relationship for a generation of moviegoers and the serious issues that begin driving a wedge in their marriage make Adam’s Rib more uncomfortable viewing than most screwball comedies. Tracy is laidback and laconic, Hepburn fiery and forthcoming yet together they play off each other marvellously; appearing entirely comfortable in each other’s company they come across as one of the most delightful, honest and above all believable married couples ever to grace the cinema screen. It’s almost a shame therefore that their battles here are as likely to divide audiences into taking sides rather than uniting behind them. From a male perspective a shrewish Hepburn fails to appreciate both Tracy's pride and his more pragmatic point of view in her sledgehammer search for moral justice, leaving audiences siding with the dejected husband as he faces an irrevocably ruined marriage all for trying to do his job. From a female perspective however Hepburn’s views on sexual equality are completely justified, her moral crusade inspiring and her frustrations with a husband who doesn’t appear to understand what she’s trying to achieve equally sympathetic. In point of fact anyone watching this film is likely to enjoy it less or more depending on his or her own marital status. Couples may appreciate the comic ironies in Cukor’s depiction of the ever-fluctuating power games between husband and wife whilst singles maybe left frustrated with a point of view never appreciated. Either way Adam’s Rib may not be the funniest or the most satisfying screwball comedy to emerge from the era but it is certainly one of the most thought-provoking and for that it deserves credit.