I have picked out a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films for quick examination. I liked the first one a lot (despite its many errors), the second one was enjoyable also, but the other four I found to be both dull and amateurish, with performances from some of their stars that were just plain poor. You might disagree, of course. Most fans of Hitchcock probably will.
North by Northwest (1959)
Cary Grant & Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest
This is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better movies, in my opinion, possibly his best. For reasons I personally find unfathomable, critics rave about Hitch (and Woody Allen, for that matter), deeming them to be directors of legendary status. I just cannot see it. North by Northwest is an enjoyable film, however, but that is due mainly to the chemistry between the two leads. Cary Grant is his usual debonair self and Eva Marie Saint is as sexy as ever. Their conversations on the train are equalled for innuendo only by Bogart’s and Bacall’s in The Big Sleep and To Have and Have not.
Hitchcock, as a director of so-called legendary status, tended to miss a few things in post-production as well as on the set. For instance, the shooting scene in the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore has a classic ‘error’ that is very noticeable indeed. Clearly, the scene had gone through several rehearsals before the usable sequence was completed, because as the stars near the moment when shots are about to be fired, a little boy at a nearby table puts his fingers in his ears seconds before the gun is even drawn. How Hitchcock missed that is mystifying.
Another mistake occurs in Grant’s dialogue delivery at the hotel room while he is talking to his mother. He mentions ‘our man who’s assembling the General Assembly’, when what he meant to say was, ‘our man who’s addressing the General Assembly’. Either Hitch or his editor should have noticed the error before the film went into print, yet it slipped by. Later, Grant bribes the clothes off a scrawny, little, old porter, and they fit his 1.87m frame perfectly, a basic, needless error evident to viewers immediately, but not to Hitchcock it seems. Later still, as Leo G Carroll walks with Grant towards the airplane, he urges him along, saying, ‘I do wish you’d walk faster Mr Thornhill, or we’ll miss our plane!’ Then he stops, not once but twice, to chat about plot issues for several minutes. Maybe, I am being ‘picky’, but if the term ‘legend’ is to be used to describe someone, a level of perfection must surely be a requisite.
The original working title for the picture was the rather lame, In a Northerly Direction, but it was changed after a while to North by Northwest, although that, too, was never intended to be the final name of the movie. It had absolutely nothing to do with the plot, nothing whatsoever, yet somehow it stuck and stuck. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman always assumed they would come up with something better, but they never did. Technically speaking, there is no compass direction called north by northwest anyway. Even so, the movie has a great many good moments, although Cary’s drunken drive down the hill definitely ain’t one of them. James Mason is always good, and Martin Landau was just starting out on his journey to acting excellence.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
The film’s title is derived from the old proverb, ‘set a thief to catch a thief’. The ‘mystery’ is about as transparent as a pane of glass, but who cares? It has the effortless charm of Cary Grant, the picturesque scenery of the Riviera, and the luscious Grace Kelly to look at. The scene where she turns at her hotel room door and passionately kisses Grant is worth the price of admission alone (or the cost of the DVD). Every once in a while there comes along a moment in movies that is bound to become timeless cinema history, and that has to be one of them. In my opinion, I cannot recall any woman, in all the thousands of pictures made, that has ever looked so utterly beautiful and fetching as the future Princess Grace of Monaco in that scene. No wonder Prince Rainier chose her over Marilyn Monroe.
Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief
Just about every critic in movie history describes this movie as a ‘classic’, the ultimate ‘scary’ picture. I have always found it too slow. And as for the final scene, well, today it looks positively amateurish to me. The really brilliant element in Psycho is that shrieking violin! Bernard Herrmann’s score is as effective as John Williams’ score for Jaws, and involves about as many notes. Both are perfect for what they are supposed to do – scare the knickers off the audience.
Not everyone in Hollywood liked the picture, of course. Walt Disney positively hated it. In fact, in the sixties, he refused permission for Hitchcock to film in Disneyland because he had ‘made that disgusting movie Psycho’. Most fans acknowledge that the ploy of having his leading lady killed off early in the movie was a masterstroke that took everyone by surprise, but Hitchcock kind of revealed something might happen to her by placing the picture’s biggest name star, Janet Leigh, at the end of the credits.
Janet Leigh in Psycho
The Birds (1963)
This is another Hitchcock ‘thriller’ that leaves me cold. For me, the protagonists look about as scary as a cage full of quail. Furthermore, some of the sequences and effects are really poorly done. For instance, the bit where the schoolchildren are attacked. It is painfully obvious that they are running on a treadmill with the Bodega Bay scenery added into the background. And again, the crows (mostly puppets) are about as frightening as a bowl of blancmange. Hitchcock disliked filming on location, and would shoot as much footage as possible in the studio on-set. And it shows. About the only plus I found in this movie was the presence of Rod Taylor.
Tippi Hedren in The Birds
Rear Window (1954)
War photographer Robert Capa and major movie star Ingrid Bergman had a lengthy affair during the Second World War, and Hitchcock used this as a premise for the Jimmy Stewart – Grace Kelly romance in this picture. I, personally, always felt the ‘hero’, played by Stewart, lacked a bit of class for my taste. After all, he was using his telephoto lens to spy on his neighbours, the sleaze-bag! Jimmy Stewart or not, the guy was a lousy peeping Tom, no two ways about it. It has been stated by numerous sources that Hitchcock often spied on his leading ladies late at night, using a telephoto lens himself. Perhaps, he felt there was nothing remiss in the practice.
Like most of Hitchcock’s movies, this one is slow. Grace Kelly made three for him, Rear Window and Dial ‘M’ for Murder, both in 1954, and To Catch a Thief in 1955. She said her favourite was this one. I thought she looked pretty special in Rear Window, but To Catch a Thief was faster-paced than the other two. Grace nearly always slept with her leading man, and she genuinely found Stewart to be ‘one of the most masculinely attractive men she ever met’, but he might just have been the ‘one that got away’, for there is no evidence at all that he succumbed to her charms. He is, however, quoted as saying, ‘Everybody just sat around and waited for her to come in in the morning, so we could just look at her.’ Amen to that.
Grace Kelly in Rear Window
Hitchcock liked to use James Stewart in his pictures. I believe he felt that Jimmy had that ‘guy next door’ look about him, perfect for the ‘innocent man mistaken’ theme of some of his movies. He used him in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo. I thought Rear Window the best of the bunch, but it did not have a lot to beat, in my opinion. Then again, I have never thought much of Stewart as an actor to be honest. All that quivering bottom lip, tears welling in the eyes, the quavering, breaking voice, and that damned stuttering drove me up the wall. In Vertigo his portrayal of a man suffering from a fear of heights was completely overdone, laughable really. And the picture was boring beyond belief. Sorry, Alfred. Another dud.
Of course, Hitchcock made scores of movies over his career, many of them when the industry was in its infancy. It is always somewhat unfair to compare what happens today with what happened yesterday. Who knows how effective his movies might have been had he been able to employ today’s special effects and CGI, for instance? What would Cameron’s Titanic have looked like if it had been made in 1960, when Hitchcock made Psycho? Perhaps, for the times, Alfred did some good work, but I would hate to compare, say, Vertigo with Double Indemnity, made 14 years earlier. Come to think of it, I can compare them – and there is no comparison. Double Indemnity is streets ahead – and it was directed by Billy Wilder. Now he was a legend.
Kim Novak in Vertigo
I cannot agree with you over North by Northwest. For me this is one of Hitchcock’s least successful efforts. (See my review for Amazon under Asio flammeus.) Most of his films are generally too long in terms of what they have to impart and the manner of presentation is frequently uneven and at times crass. This film is no exception in my opinion.
Thank you for your comments, Jiohn. I agree with your assessment of the film. It has serious flaws. However, I have reiterated many times that I am no expert on how movies are made. I merely write about my own personal opinions of what I like and dislike. I like the interaction between Cary and Eva, something that enables me to put up with the less satisfactory issues. In truth, I suppose, I like Eva Marie Saint. Always have.
I noticed Hitchcock amongt your reviews, and had to come here. I like his films, and while not regarding him as the greatest of directors, I think he was a very good one. I have criticisms of a few of his films, not for the goofs though. They are a common occurrence in movies – I don’t know if you ever visit the IMDB website; it has a list of goofs from every film. Mommie Dearest, starring Faye Dunaway, was supposed to be a classic, but the list of goofs in that film is amazing.
My criticism of Hitchcock is that situations in his films just did not reflect real life at times. Take Dial M for Murder; in the scene in which Anthony Dawson tries to strangle Grace, she somehow knows exactly where to reach, over her head and behind her, to grab the scissors and stab Dawson; that just doesn’t ring true for someone in the shock situation of being attacked from behind in her home in the middle of the night. I would have had her at least being in the position, at some point in the struggle, to SEE the scissors and try to reach for them before actually getting hold of them.
Another unrealistic scene is the one from Rear Window, where the killer grabs Lisa (Grace) in his apartment, and she slaps his arm and half-heartedly cries: “Jeff!! Jeff”. I would have had her screaming at the top of her voice so that everyone in the block could hear her.
North by Northwest is one of my all time favourite films, I like it as much for the sense of adventure and travel as I do for the performances by Eva Marie Saint and Grant; I hope to go to the U.S. one day and actually make the overnight train journey from New York to Chicago, and then go on to see Mount Rushmore. There is one scene in the film though that I think Hitchie filmed really badly, and that is the one in which Landau ‘shoots’ Mason with the fake gun – BANG! – yet it takes Eva Marie Saint about five minutes to come out of her room and say “What was that noise?” Unbelievably silly.
The way I would have filmed that would have been to have Landau point the gun at Mason, say: “Why don’t I just shoot you now and take off with the film and the girl myself?” and then at the last second, toss the gun to Mason and say: “Have a look at the bullets – you’re knowledgeable about firearms. What kind of bullets are they?” Mason: Why they’re blanks!” Laudau: “Precisely! And it’s the gun she supposedly shot him with!”
The worst one Hitchcock did, I think, was in a film called Strangers on a Train, which apart from the following scene, is one of my Hitchie favourites.
Mentally disturbed Robert Walker has murdered Farley Granger’s wife, who was standing in the way of Granger getting a divorce to start a new life with his new love, the gorgeous Ruth Roman. Now Walker wants Granger to murder the Father he hates in return. So guess what? He sends Granger a gun, a key and a note and tells him to go into his Father’s house and shoot him. Well, Granger goes into the house at the dead of night, somehow manages to get past a big guard dog, then walks into the man’s bedroom, in the dark, and says to him: “Mr. Anthony, don’t be alarmed, but I must talk to you about your son…” Ludicrous. If a stranger appeared next to your bed in the dead of night, you’d probably scream your head off in terror and not listen to a word he/she said to you, or, in the U.S.A, be just as likely to reach for a gun and shoot him/her!
I don’t know if Hitchie always thought these scenes through before he filmed them, but for me they knock points off him being a really great director.
By the way, that line you quoted from North by Northwest, “…assembling the general assembly”, I’ve never thought of it as a mistake; I’ve always thought that it was written into the script as deliberate ironic humour for Grant…
Hi David. Like you, I find Hitch made a lot of mistakes in his films that gave them a somewhat amateurish look at times. I watched ‘Dial M for Murder’ again last week (felt like drooling over Grace again), and the scene where she stabs Dawson really is so poor. For one thing, there was simply no way she would have the strength to fatally stab him from that angle, through his coat, and with a pair of scissors! And he dies pretty much instantly. ‘Rear Window’ is not one of my favourite films, but Grace is drop-dead gorgeous in it nevertheless. ‘North by Northwest’ has mistakes galore, but I don’t care, because Cary and the delightful Eva are so watchable. I am pretty sure Cary was supposed to say ‘addresing’ the General Assembly’, but you may be right. If you ever watch ‘Operation Petticoat’ again (good film), you might note the child at the end saying, ‘Hello, Mr. Grant’ instead of addressing him by his character’s name. It is not Hitchcock, but it is a mistake that really should have been found and fixed. I agree with you about the ludicrous situation in the bedroom in ‘Strangers on a Train’. Hitch kept coming up with all these clever ideas about heightening suspense, but forgot to get the human nature side of things right in the process.
The dynamic of Notorious is that the plot requires Cary Grant to procure the woman he loves to an enemy spy so that by becoming his lover she will enable him to get nuclear secrets to which she agrees. The more convincing she is in bed the better. This is highly kinky and the only film in which Ingrid has the chance to appear louche, drunken and available. It must have appealed to all Hitchcock’s own perverse fantasising. And didn’t she do it well and convincingly.
I think ‘Notorious’ is one of Hitchcock’s better films. Cary is always good and Ingrid was almost on a par with her terrific performance in ‘Casablanca’. Claude Rains was a wonderful ‘heavy’ too. Good old-fashioned fun.