At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
In this month’s roundtable, we reflect on the life of one of cinema’s giants, Alfred Hitchcock, during the month of his birthday. The Master of Suspense directed films in six different decades, from the silent era into the late 70s. Over the course of his career, he worked with some of the most prolific figures in early Hollywood including Ingrid Bergman, Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, David O. Selznick, Lawrence Olivier, Grace Kelly, and Shirley MacLaine. From Hitchcock’s influence on contemporary filmmakers to the countless restorations and screenings of his films today, it goes without saying that his influence on cinema still echoes loudly.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
By Matt Schlee
Hitchcock considered Shadow of a Doubt to be his favorite of his own films. Largely this is due to the fact that it served as a tribute to his beloved mother who passed away while he was making the film. Still, he’s justified in his adoration and it is a sadly overlooked entry on his resume. The film follows a young girl named Charlie (Teresa Wright) as she excitedly greets her uncle and namesake (Joseph Cotten) who is visiting her small town family. However, over the course of the film she starts to realize that her beloved uncle may be responsible for a string of murders.
Shadow of a Doubt is a blue beard story, meaning that its central villain is a man who marries and preys on widows. This is a story archetype that has been used many times from Laughton’s haunting The Night of the Hunter to Chaplin’s wryly hilarious Monsieur Verdoux. However, no filmmaker has ever made it feel as real as Hitchcock. Young Charlie deeply loves her uncle. In an endearing moment early in the film she expresses the feeling that she and her Uncle Charlie share a telepathic connection. Though you get the sense that Uncle Charlie doesn’t often make it to their neck of the woods, it is a deeply touching familial relationship. This makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch the young girl start to doubt her uncle.
Shadow of a Doubt wears many hats. It is a small town murder mystery, a realist horror, a family drama, a rural film noir, a story of young love, and more. Still, more than anything, it is a story of a young girl whose innocence is shattered as she is forced to uncover a secret which could destroy her world. It is a story of betrayal and a lesson about the skeletons that people have in their closets, and it is sure to make you wonder if you really know the people sitting around your dinner table.
By Kevin Jones
Spellbound is a film that really stands out in Hitchcock’s filmography, in large part due to the Salvador Dali designed dream sequence. Though, for many film viewers, the dream sequence in Vertigo may be iconic – and it is – the dream sequence in Spellbound is one that is truly hypnotic. As repeated images of eyes, people with no face, a man falling off a building, scissors, and more, flash upon the screen via the distorted and surreal artwork provided by Dali, Spellbound is able to stand out as a truly unique Hitchcock film. Though many of his films may be concerned with psychoanalysis or phobias – especially the late 1950s and early 1960s with films such as Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie – of the main character, the way in which Hitchcock blends it with his similar interest in exploring a character accused of a crime they did not commit (The Wrong Man being the chief example of this), the psychoanalysis angle of Spellbound takes on a truly great suspenseful and thrilling angle.
Starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, the film is partially a romance between the two, but it starts with Peck being introduced as a Dr. Anthony Edwardes, newly appointed as the head of the hospital where Bergman’s Dr. Constance Petersen is a psychoanalyst. As it is quickly revealed that Peck is an imposter who suffers from amnesia, it is naturally assumed that he killed Edwardes. Through the diligent work of Dr. Petersen, however, the secrets hidden within this amnesiac’s fractured subconscious are slowly revealed. In large part, this is due to that dream sequence, which is what makes it such a standout moment in Hitchcock’s filmography. In a career filled with memorable sequences and great characters, Spellbound may very well possess my favorite sequence. He made better films. He had more suspenseful films. He made films with an overall longer lasting impact. However, this sequence is the one that stands out among every one of his films. The combination of Dali’s surrealist imagery and Hitchcock’s blend of psychoanalysis and murder mystery makes it a scene that is truly hypnotic, much in the same way a David Lynch film can become. With subconscious explanations for everything he is viewing, the scene is one with a great understanding of the psychoanalysis and using the clues within one’s mind to piece together a memory they are trying to suppress. As opposed to Hitchcock’s other “innocent man accused of a crime” films, Spellbound is the only one I can recall in which the innocent man must not only convince others of his innocence, but also convince himself.
By Alex Sitaras
Notorious represents a turning point of sorts in Hitchcock’s filmography. It’s his first film that could truly be declared as a romance (and for good reason- the film is first and foremost a romance and then a spy story) and it is his first film where he truly dives into the character of the mother, an exploration that he returned to numerous times throughout his career. He also employs creative camerawork and deftly subverts the Hays Code, all while sustaining the strong feeling of suspense that the Hitch is best known for.
Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman star as the two leads of Notorious, Grant as T.R. Devlin, a government agent, and Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. Huberman becomes of interest as a potential spy given her background and the two quickly fall in love while Huberman awaits details about her assignment. The pair’s romance is tested as Huberman is to seduce a family friend, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), in order to help infiltrate a group of Nazis.
Alex provides yet another example of a character who shares my name that is horrible and/or suffers a horrible fate (see A Clockwork Orange and Irreversible for additional examples). Alex is jealous, tense, and under the influence of his despotic mother. Rains delivers perhaps the most nuanced performance of Notorious, his jealousy and timidity shown in both his interactions with Devlin and his mother. Sebastian’s unhinged performance adds greatly to my favorite scene in the film- a house party at Sebastian’s estate where Devlin attempts to sneak into the wine cellar with Huberman’s help.
By Ben McDonald
When I was around 12, I got an Alfred Hitchcock DVD set for my birthday. During the course of my family’s long road trips over the holidays, my brother and I would bring our favorite movies to watch on our portable DVD player. Rope somehow worked itself into the rotation, and quickly became an annual favorite between us. It was one of the first Hitchcocks I ever saw, and still remains my favorite work of the director to date.
Admittedly more theatrical than cinematic, Rope takes place entirely in one location, and follows two wealthy college graduates that decide to kill their friend for the simple thrill of it. The film opens with the two of them strangling him to death with a piece of rope. Transferring his corpse into a buffet chest, the two proceed to host a dinner party for his family and friends in the same room.
Shot and edited to look like one long take, Rope is a fantastically fun spectacle of pure Hitchcockian suspense, filled with morbid humor and absurdly twisted Nietzschean rambling. James Stewart plays the two college graduates’ mild-mannered schoolmaster, who is implied to have contributed to their superiority complex in the first place.
The main enjoyment of Rope consists of watching the two killers try to hold it together while entertaining their guests in the same room as their crime. The nervous one, Phillip (Farley Granger) can barely mask his guilt as he pounds down drink after drink, while the other, Brandon (John Dall), seems practically hoping to get caught out of some perverse glee. While Rope may be far from Hitchcock’s most ambitious or thematically challenging work (Hitchcock himself later called it a failed experiment), I can’t help but love every playful and thrilling moment.