A few summers ago, I was employed by an idyllic, wondrous educational program called the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts. Essentially a state-run artists' colony for teenagers, PGSA puts all the best drama geeks, band nerds and the like through a rigorous audition process, before selecting the most precocious and preposterously talented of the bunch and throwing them into a veritable six-week paradise of creation. Or as close as you can come to paradise in Erie, Pennsylvania, anyway.
A-List: Unappreciated Hitchcock Films
By Sean Collier
September 2, 2008
Aside from calming fretting parents, Xeroxing zines, and patrolling the campus shrubbery to prevent any young lovers from making it past second base, I helped out with some film criticism classes. Part of my job was to come up with a film series to keep the kids occupied (and, again, away from adolescent groping) every now and then. Being a lifetime Alfred Hitchcock devotee, I decided to see how the young scamps reacted to the master's works of suspense and dark humor. I figured they'd be way into Psycho, but taper off after a film or two.
I was wrong.
Every time I tried to tell them it'd be the last film in the series, dozens of kids would beg me to find a night to fit in another film. They sat rapt through Vertigo, they giggled through Rear Window, they cuddled on the lawn when we did an outdoor screening of The Birds. Despite very limited exposure to films released before 1990, they instantly attached to Hitchcock's movies. (Horrifying factoid: people born in the '90s can now vote, smoke, and go to strip clubs. Anyway.)
Like all good film snobs, I think a lot of the output of the '30s, '40s and '50s holds up well today. Hitchcock, though, is truly eternal. Psycho could've been made last year. Rear Window WAS made last year, they just called it Disturbia. These films simply don't age.
Just about everyone has seen a few of Hitch's films, but his output was much more vast than many people realize. A great number of true gems have probably escaped your radar thus far; thankfully, I have come to spread the gospel according to Hitch. With a reminder that "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," The A-List presents the most under-appreciated films by Alfred Hitchcock.
When Rope does get attention, it's mainly as a technical wonder – decades before such a thing was technically possible, Hitchcock attempted to make the vast majority of the film one continuous shot. He comes awfully close to succeeding, too – the narrative plays out in real time, and the vast majority contains no cuts. To change film reels, however, he is forced to zoom in on a character's back and back out, to create the illusion of an unbroken shot; today, it's a bit distracting, but forgivable given the circumstance. Beyond that achievement, however, Rope is a master class in suspense and tension, with brilliant character work by the trio of Jimmy Stewart, John Dall and Farley Granger. There's intriguing subtext about society's acceptance of homosexuality at work, too, though the film's message on the subject is ambiguous. (It took me a while to believe the homosexuality theory – but if you don't buy it at first, start the movie over and listen to the dialogue with your eyes closed.)
The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps is probably the best known of Hitchcock's films before the jump to America, but it bears inclusion on an under-appreciated list for one chief reason. Playing both in London and Broadway right now is an absolutely hilarious farce adaptation of the film, full of Hitchcockian in-jokes, slapstick and melodrama. The show usually sells out, and audiences usually love it, but here's the trouble: it's way, way, WAY funnier if you've seen the movie. If you haven't, it bears viewing on its own merits – the brilliant opening Mr. Memory scene and the interplay between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll chief among them – but see the film, then find an opportunity to see the play.
While The Man Who Knew Too Much was the only film that Hitchcock made twice, he wasn't shy about borrowing set pieces and concepts from his early work to spice up his Hollywood output. Saboteur borrows liberally from The 39 Steps, chiefly in the trope of the wrongly accused man handcuffing himself to the disbelieving heroine. That works well, but the two essential scenes are a fabulous politically incorrect sequence where our heroes stow away on a train car full of circus freaks and a tense interaction with a charitable blind man. Which is to say nothing of a climax that involves hanging off of the Statue of Liberty. Saboteur is a bit uneven, but definitely worth a look.
The Trouble With Harry
While dark humor is an essential feature of the Hitchcock canon, very few of his films could be termed comedy. And, while The Trouble With Harry certainly is a light-hearted, somewhat romantic comedy, at the very least it does revolve around the mishandling of an unexpected corpse. Just so no one would be alarmed, I suppose. Sam Marlowe stars as the charming artist at the center of this comedy of errors, and a very young Shirley MacLaine co-stars. The song Marlowe sings as he walks into town will be stuck in your head for days.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The self-remade American version of this film is more widely known and much more widely seen. Hitchcock considered the later version, made in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, to be the superior of the two films; truth be told, it probably is, with some beautiful Technicolor representations of Morocco and the overuse of "Que Sera Sera." However, to ignore the 1934 version is a crime; there's a charming opening in Swiss Alps, completely with a hilariously shot skiing accident, and plenty of '30s charm to go around. Plus, it has Peter Lorre as one of the villains, speaking English on screen for the first time. Not comprehending it, though. He still didn't speak the language, so he learned the words phonetically. Which is pretty hilarious.
Strangers on a Train
I know, I know – Strangers on a Train isn't under-appreciated. It's one of the most beloved and studied Hitchcock films. Here's the trouble, though – some morons are remaking it. The retread has been trapped in development hell for years at Warner Bros, with several potential directors bailing out already; this does not give me much faith in a calm, balanced, artful remake. The script is by David Seltzer, scribe of the original Omen...but the details are not important here. These stories, good as they were, are permanently tied up in Hitchcock's eye, and mind. This is one of the many reasons why Gus Van Sant's Psycho sucked – even if you do exactly what Hitch did, you still can't come close to doing what Hitch did. They're timeless, but they're products of one director at one time. They can't be remade. I'm off on a rant here, so to bring it around to the point: if for some reason you haven't seen Strangers on a Train, make it a priority. To see some tossed-around remake without seeing the brilliant original would be a cardinal sin.