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Hitchcock at 100:
His Best Work

by Gregory Avery


Hitchcock did most of his best work in the Forties while on-loan to other studios. Notorious was one picture where he, the writer Ben Hecht, and Ingrid Bergman were "packaged" by Selznick, then "sold" to RKO., where the movie was made.

Alicia Huberman (played by Bergman), whose father has just been tried and convicted for treason, is merrily drinking, partying and careening her way into the gutter when she meets Devlin (Cary Grant), a Federal agent who persuades her to go to Rio de Janeiro with him, where he's investigating an espionage ring made up of escaped Nazis. Once in Rio, Alicia learns that Devlin has recruited her to reestablish contacts with these old friends of her father, and, more specifically, to infiltrate them by means of seducing one of them -- Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, in a performance which should have gotten him an Academy Award), who just happens to also be a old flame of Alicia's.

NotoriousAfter working with her on Spellbound, Hitchcock lavished attention on Bergman, particularly in the closing scenes, where Alicia, after suffering much for the cause of justice, is carried out of the Sebastian household, where Alex lives with his magisterial, glint-eyed, authoritarian mother (Leopoldine Konstantin, a great European stage actress, in her only film appearance, and it's a doozy). Devlin makes no mistake that Alicia was chosen for this assignment because she is "good at making friends with gentlemen." Alicia, in turn, makes a point of telling Devlin, whom she was at one point seriously falling in love with, that she has succeeded in making Sebastian another one of her "playmates," before mentioning that Sebastian has also just proposed marriage to her. If Laura is, as Pauline Kael put it, everyone's favorite chic murder mystery, then Notorious could be considered everyone's favorite chic espionage thriller, for it is certainly the most beautifully cast, made, and photographed film in which the lead characters do and say the most terrible things to each other.

There is a sequence where Alicia and Devlin engage in, if not a prolonged, direct kiss, than a series of kisses during which they cannot seem to part from each other -- it lasts off and on for about 2 minutes and 38 seconds. I will let Hitchcock, as quoted in Donald Spoto's biography, tell how he first came up with the inspiration for this famous, even most erotic moment:

."..I felt that they should remain in an embrace and that we should join them. So when they got to the phone the camera followed them, never leaving the close-up all the way, right over to the door -- all in one continuous shot.... The idea came to me many, many years ago when I was on a train gong from Boulogne to Paris. There's a big, old, red brick factory, and at one end of the factory was this huge, high brick wall. There were two figures at the bottom of the wall -- a boy and a girl. The boy was urinating against the wall, but the girl had hold of his arm and she never let go. She'd look down at what he was doing, and then look around at the scenery, and down again to see how far he'd got on. And that was what gave me the idea. She couldn't let go. Romance must not be interrupted...."

Alicia and Devlin discover that Sebastian and his group are dealing in "some kind of metal ore" hidden in a wine bottle in the cellar of his house: uranium. Their attempt to discover it is initiated in a long crane shot which starts out at a high angle, introducing us to a formal party being held in the Sebastians' house -- the camera descends until it stops on a close-up of Alicia's hand, the key to the wine cellar door, which she has lifted from her husband, visible in its grasp. Along with these virtuoso strokes, Notorious has a high Hollywood gloss, two great-looking lead players who generate on-screen chemistry together, and it is entertaining, not only in terms of technicals or story, but also in how it plays out. We think we are watching a love story. What we're watching is a story of love thwarted, even perverted, and then, in the end, regained.

There are people who claim that the severing of the Hitchcock-Selznick pact was not to either's advantage, particularly Hitchcock's. This is based on the interpretation that Hitchcock preferred "style over substance" and that Selznick was more oriented towards story and character-driven material. Also, Hitchcock's first two independent productions, after finishing The Paradine Case in 1947, did not fare well. The second of these was Under Capricorn, where Ingrid Bergman played a British countess (!) who enters a doomed relationship with an Australian played by Joseph Cotten (!). This was Hitchcock's third attempt to do a costume picture, after the musical Waltzes from Vienna (1933), doomed despite the presence of the superb Jessie Matthews, and Jamaica Inn. Hitchcock was said to have always wanted to do a period piece, and, later, he would make one more try.

But, as mentioned earlier, Hitchcock made 3 pictures for Selznick, out of the 12 that he made during the Forties (not including the two French-language short films, Bon Voyage and Avventure Malagache, which he made in 1944 to be shown in post-Occupied France). Shadow of a Doubt, his great portrait of a peaceful domestic community invaded by a purveyor of evil, and Saboteur, with its incredible climax atop the Statue of Liberty, were done for Universal; Foreign Correspondent, with its famous scenes involving assassinations and windmills, was done for independent producer Walter Wanger; Suspicion was also made for RKO., while Lifeboat, the film where the action is entirely contained in the title craft, was made over at Fox. And Hitchcock was the credited producer for Notorious.

Starting in 1948, Hitchcock would proceed to produce 13 of his most remarkable, idiosyncratic films, and in the 1950s he experienced his most successful streak of motion pictures, artistically if not always financially. Rope (1948) was made entirely in "real time," with continuous camera takes, and on a soundstage set which was designed complete with an exterior cityscape that subtly changed from afternoon to night as the action progressed: the "clouds" used to help achieve this effect were made from spun glass. (Noel Coward visited the set and wrote in his diary, "Went out to Warners to see Hitchcock directing 'Rope'.... Really very exciting, a whole reel taken in one go without resetting lights.... It cannot be applied to all pictures, but from a writer's point of view it is wonderful." Hitchcock also tried to use continuous takes in Under Capricorn, but had to abandon it. The Paradine CaseIngrid Bergman felt "the audience couldn't care less. If he had to cut to close-ups and several interrupting cuts in a sequence they would have been just as happy.") Strangers on a Train (1951), which squeezed every deliciously wicked bit of juice out of the devil's-pact between its two lead characters, one of whom is portrayed, in one of the best performances ever seen in a Hitchcock film, by Robert Walker. Rear Window (1954), a movie which plays out in many settings but actually unfolds in one setting, only. Dial M for Murder (1954), originally filmed in 3-D, with Grace Kelly surprising the audience, and herself, by stabbing Anthony Dawson with a pair of scissors for which she reaches backwards, ever backwards, while husband Ray Milland listens, with almost cool disparity (he wants to find out if Dawson will succeed, not fail), to the whole thing over the telephone. To Catch a Thief (1955), which brought Cary Grant, as a jewel thief in evening clothes, together with Kelly, that astounding beauty with those beautifully rounded, Philadelphia tones in her voice -- he tries to steal her jewels, too, but gets understandably distracted. The Trouble With Harry (1955), with Edmund Gwenn lugging around a dead body which nobody wants, when Mildred Natwick walks up to him and asks, "What seems to be the trouble, captain?" The Wrong Man (1957), Hitchcock's one foray into docu-drama (he makes his obligatory cameo at the very start of the film, to introduce it, so as not to distract from what lay ahead), based on the real story of a man (Henry Fonda) who is arrested and charged for a crime because it turns out he, literally, looks just like the man who actually committed it. (Bernard Herrmann also composed a jazz music score for this film.) North by Northwest (1959), that incredibly daffy thriller that sends Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau hither and yon, round and round after each other. And a dark, magisterial piece that was initially advertised as "Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece." It took over 33 years to find out that it was.

Vertigo is ostensibly about a man trying to find out if another man's wife is somehow up to no good. The woman's husband even wonders if she's "possessed." She does spend a lot of time at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, staring at a painting of a dead woman: the tragically-fated Carlotta Valdes. But, as with many of Hitchcock's pictures, it turns out to be more and more about the mysteries of the characters than any actual mystery plot -- whether it is Madeleine's gradual submergence in the persona of Carlotta, fated to die, or Scottie Ferguson's acrophobia/vertigo, which he discovers at a most unpropitious moment, during a rooftop chase in San Francisco, that most vertiginous of great cities.

When it was re-released in 1984, some audiences sniggered at Vertigo because James Stewart was able to drive all over San Francisco and always find a parking space. Well, we're not in the real world, here: this is Scottie's world, a dreamer's world, where the object he's pursuing is always further on. Vertigo not only functions as a number of mysteries, but also as a series of chambers, through which we pass from one to the next, taking us further inward to its dark central secret.

VertigoIt is unfortunate that the film was dismissed at the time, because Kim Novak took a lot of flack for being just an "invention" of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, who made her into a star in order to challenged what he perceived as being increasingly obstreperous behavior from Rita Hayworth. The press picked up on Cohn's puppetmaster routine, figuring that Novak had no talent. No matter how many times you see Vertigo, you never immediately recognize her as Judy, the girl who clerks at I. Magnin's for a living. Novak never had a role or a film that was able to show the skills as a performer that she displays here. (And an episode involving a 1991 film production left her so burned that she has quit acting altogether.) I particularly like the moment when Judy and Scottie stop at a flower stall, and the way Novak's Judy says, very quickly, "I like that one...!" But Scottie, quietly and surely, picks out another flower that he thinks would better suit her.

A perfect, poised, flawless, immaculate, enticing and beautiful object of attraction. Scottie goes after it, and gets it -- but at an enormous price. Madeleine steps out of a soft, bathing, jade-green haze, the imagined becomes form. Her emergence in Vertigo takes one aback as much as Grace Kelly's first appearance does in Rear Window -- she kisses her sleeping fiancé as he sleeps by the window of his flat on a hot summer night, and we see Kelly step back as he awakes, and we see that she is wearing a gown made of dark, ice blue and white -- the perfect feminine vision on a scalding summer's night in the city, it cools one just to look at her.

From Grace Kelly to Kim Novak to Eva Marie Saint, then Janet Leigh, then -- The blond coiffures, fixed at the back, the dress suit (grey), the right shoes (black or brown, low-heeled). This seems to be the Galatea that Hitchcock yearned towards in his later films. Women also did not have a good time of it in Hitchcock's later films, and even if the hero got the girl in the end, it seemed like a no-win situation.

After post-production was completed on North by Northwest, Hitchcock began scouting locations for No Bail for the Judge, which Samuel Taylor had scripted. He had already received notices of interest from the performers Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Harvey and John Williams to appear in the picture. The story had to do with a London barrister (played by Hepburn) who comes to the aid of her father (Williams), a judge who tries capital offenses in the Old Bailey Court. The judge wakes up one morning to discover a prostitute, dead, slumped over him with a knife in her back; with no recollection of the night before, he confesses to the crime. The barrister then asks a gentleman thief (played by Harvey) to help her infiltrate the London underworld, to discover who may have actually done the crime.

Taylor and Hitchcock had virtually worked the film out scene for scene and shot for shot by the time the final screenplay was completed, and a copy was sent to Hepburn, who was on location appearing in John Huston's miserable, ill-fated The Unforgiven. It was then that she apparently had second thoughts about a scene where the barrister whom she was supposed to play is dragged into Hyde Park at night and raped. Those associated with the production assured that the scene would be filmed with discretion. However, the film which Hepburn had just completed for Fred Zinnemann, The Nun's Story, was premiering at Radio City Music Hall, and, after notifying Hitchcock's office that she would have to reconsider her involvement in his film, announced that she was going to have another child by her then-husband, Mel Ferrer. As if that weren't enough to make Hitchcock furious -- Vera Miles, who was then under contract to Hitchcock, had bailed out of one intended project for her because of a pregnancy -- the surprise (and, I should add, deserved) success of the Hepburn/Zinnemann film delayed the opening of North by Northwest at Radio City, and in every other major city in the U.S. (This was before The Godfather, in 1972-73, made "wide" openings, in more than one theater in one city, of major motion pictures commonplace.) Without Hepburn, and at some expense, Hitchcock shelved No Bail for the Judge for good.

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