Wednesday 24 December 2008

The Master of Suspense

£20 for 14 DVDs of Hitchcock, how can you go wrong? Well, if you pop into HMV (and doubtless other places, indeed, Amazon have it even cheaper) right not, it's difficult to see how you can. I would probably have paid £20 just to get hold of Rear Window, for my money one of the finest films ever made. But, as well as that, you also get The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second version with Jimmy Stewart), Rope, The Birds, Psycho, Frenzy, Vertigo, Marnie and much more.

Of course, there are some notable absences, particularly North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder and The Thirty-Nine Steps, but this may very well be because there is a second box for around the same price which includes all but the latter.

First into my DVD player was Rear Window. This will doubtless be known to people reading this post; if it isn't, stop reading now and for goodness sake go out and buy the set and watch it. What is there to say about this work? Jimmy Stewart, the photo journalist who has been confined to a wheelchair in an accident, and Hitchcock's sweeping introduction to his apartment that fills in this back-story visually in about a minute, is well cast. Opposite him is Grace Kelly. Stewart pulls off a remarkable acting achievement, in that most people, when watching the film, don't scream at the implausibility of his reluctance to marry her.

Then there is the MacGuffin: not so much a murder mystery as a 'was there a murder' mystery. Stewart thinks he's seen something, but has he? From there comes the suspense. And if that was all we got from the remarkable set, which is confined to the Stewart's apartment and the windows he can see into from there, that would still be something. But it is not enough for Hitchcock, who taps into the inner voyeur in all of us: we see Miss Lonely Heart's depressing life play out in a series of disappointments, the beautiful ballerina, who provides the fodder for some of the sharpest verbal fencing between the leads and the couple sleeping out on the fire escape to avoid the heat.

Just as we the audience are drawn into watching, so both Kelly and Stewart's nurse become hooked into the mystery. It stands up superbly to repeated viewings. There is also an interesting documentary that shows Hitchcock's genius when directing the couple on the fire escape - he gave them contradictory instructions when the story comes, so they fall over each other trying to get inside, the result is wonderfully natural.

My next foray was slightly less successful: Rope. The concept is superb. Inspired by a play, it tells of two people who decide to commit the perfect murder, to show they can, and then invite various people to dinner, including the victim's parents and their old professor.

Hitchcock wanted to shoot it continuously, unfortunately he was bound by the ten minute limit of the amount of tape that could be got into a camera, the solution of every now and again focusing onto someone's back doesn't mask this entirely satisfactorily.

The second problem is that Jimmy Stewart is miscast as the intellectual: he doesn't seem quite right spouting Nietzsche. It is said that Carry Grant was preferred but turned it down out of concern over the homosexual subtext (it is implied that the murderers are in a relationship and, according the screenwriter, in the play one had had an affair with Stewart's character in the past). He is great playing the cop and figuring things out, but less fine elsewhere.

A third problem wouldn't have occurred to me but for the documentary. The writer suggests we shouldn't have seen the murder at the start, which might have led to rear window style tension of wondering if there really was a body in that chest. All in all, if ever there was a compelling candidate for a remake, this is it (not least because modern digital technology must surely make one continuous take no problem).

That's not to say it is a total write off, there are some very fine and amusing lines, the murderers (John Dall and Fraley Granger) are excellent, so too the victim's father and aunt. Some of the shots are pure genius - the timing of the kitchen door swinging to reveal Brandon dropping the rope into a draw is superb, so too is the tension as Stewart attempts to unmask them while keeping his life.

Last up, for the moment, was The Trouble with Harry, which is that he is dead. As the film opens, one person after another stumbles across the body, some believing they have killed him, and all conspiring, for reasons that aren't always completely convincing, to cover things up. I suppose, to some extent, this is Hitch's attempt to send himself and his genre up, and it does work.

It's a weird and wacky black comedy, with only the small town sherif really behaving as you would expect for a character in a Hitchcock movie, except, of course, that he would normally be expected to get his man.

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