Early Hitchcock? Yes. Minor Hitchcock? Definitely Not. – The 39 Steps (1935)

***Spoiler Warning! Yes, I’m writing about a more than 80 year old movie today, but just as this was my first viewing of the movie, therefore it was new to me and there were twists I wouldn’t have wanted to know about, I’m sure there are those of you out there who are in the same situation, and even though I’m not going to be talking about the very ending of the movie, there are some twists that are unavoidable. Therefore, if you want to go into it completely spoiler free, well… End Warning***

39s1One of the things that I’ve decided recently is that I need to spend more time catching up with early Alfred Hitchcock movies, especially those that he made before leaving England for Hollywood. Thus, The 39 Steps which he directed in 1935.

Adapted from John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps which was first serialized in Blackwoods Magazine in 1915, Hitchcock’s film not only stands as a great early example of spy films in general, but of what was to come from the great director as it either introduces or reinforces a number of the touches and tropes that would be seen throughout his career.

First, the movie is a great example of the Hitchcockian plot device of a seemingly innocent man caught up by circumstance in events beyond his control which could have world changing implications. In this case the man is Richard Hannay who is played by Robert Donat. Interestingly, Buchan’s novel was the first of five novels to feature Hannay as the lead as he continued to get caught up in a number of adventures beyond the conclusion of the events in this story.

39s2Second, and especially of note in this day when gender-and race- swapping are controversial issues which receive a lot of attention, We have the introduction of “Annabella Smith” (an admitted alias) as the character who brings Hannay into the plot after a show at a London music hall is disrupted by gunfire. What makes this interesting is that on the novel, the person who draws Hannay into the story is an American man named Franklin P. Scudder. By turning Scudder into a woman of unknown national origin, Hitchcock not only raises a question of sexual tension that would not be a part of Buchan’s story, but also in his casting of Lucie Mannheim as Smith, he reinforces the idea of the “Hitchcock blond” which would become a staple of the master’s movies.

39s3Also, by recasting the character as female, Hitchcock provides an early take on an idea which would have a later echo in the director’s 1960 film Psycho when she is suddenly and unexpectedly stabbed and killed very early in the film, thus leaving Hannay with only the slightest of clues as to the actual mystery that is surrounding him, and changing the focus and perspective of the film from what seems like it will be a chase of both Hannay and Smith as they try to intercept and deter the spy ring to more of a man on the run film as Hannay must not only attempt to figure out the secret that she was trying to protect, but must also stay one step ahead of Scotland Yard who believe that he is the one who murdered her.

39s5Finally, I think it should be noted that even though The 39 Steps may seem to be, as noted above an “early” Hitchcock film, he already had quite a few directing credits to his name before this (the number is kind of inexact depending on the sources you check and just how much involvement you give credit to on some of the earliest films, but it already shows the assured hand of someone who knows just what he wants from both those behind and in front of the camera and how to get what he wants. It may be early Hitchcock, but it isn’t minor Hitchcock. Also, it was considered a major film by production company Gaumont-British which was not only willing to give Hitch a very free hand with the adaptation, but was also willing to spend what was then considered a major-league budget to make it, including spending the money to bring in two stars who at the time were well known American actors in an attempt to make a splash not only in England but also in America, and that investment paid off greatly, not only at the box office, but with critics and audiences.

I said at the first that I felt a need to fill in the Early Hitchcock hole in my viewing experience, and if The 39 Steps is any example of what’s in store as I do that, I can’t wait to watch more.

Here’s, well, not exactly a trailer, but a taste of the film:

Top 250 Tuesday #174 – Notorious (1946)

Continuing to wend my way through the Sight and Sound Top 250 Greatest Movies of All Time. This week, it’s #180 on the list,  Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. For a longer introduction to this series and a look at the full list, just click here. And if you want a heads-up on what I’ll be watching for next week in case you want to watch along, just head on over to the Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I’ll generally be posting that info later in the day.

not1So  in writing about today’s entry into the Sight and Sound Top 250 line-up, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, one has to consider what can only be termed the “Hitchcock problem” which is somewhat inherent in any poll like this, and especially in one that produces such a large list of films.

Simply put, the problem is an overabundance of truly excellent films to choose from.

Yeah, it may perhaps seem strange to consider this a “problem”, but…

Here’s the deal from my perspective: Hitchcock directed so many truly great movies over the years that there’s no way that anyone can possibly make a list of “Greatest Movies” without including him somewhere on the list. Well, that’s not quite true, I suppose. One could certainly make such a list, but the exclusion of Sir Alfred would have to be purposeful and mostly an exercise not just in trying to be non-conformist, but also in denying an truly great director his place in the film-making landscape.

not2 So then the question really becomes two separate ones. It’s not so much “does Hitchcock get a place on my list”, but “how many places?” and “which Hitchcock”?

Obviously, the consensus answer to the second question at least in 2012, the year this version of the poll was released fell to Vertigo enough times that it actually managed to displace Citizen Kane from it’s long standing place in the top spot of the list. Is it really the best film Hitchcock made in his long career? Personally, I’d argue no – my vote goes to Rear Window, which has become my go-to answer when anyone asks me for my all-time favorite movie, if for no other reason than one has to have an answer to that question readily available, and I think it goes a long way towards being Hitchcock’s best and certainly a good way to open the discussion – but at that point one truly gets into personal preference, which, in the end is where these lists are finally built anyway.

not3As far as the first question above, that of how many places one allows for Hitchcock films, well, that’s not one that I’m really looking at to answer numerically, but rather I bring it up in order to point out that I think it’s that question that places at least five different movies from the director’s filmography on the list, and finds (or perhaps makes?) room for a movie like Notorious on it.

Make no mistake. Notorious is an excellent movie, and if it were made by anyone other than Hitchcock it could easily qualify as a director’s greatest work. However, when placed within the scope of this particular director’s achievements, one has to wonder in a way if it simply doesn’t pale in comparison.

Again, another aspect of the “Hitchcock problem”: when a director has made so many movies that could be considered other directors’ best work, how does one deal with those which are simply “great” but not “the greatest” in compiling a list like this?

not4Okay, so I’m six hundred words into this, and i really haven’t even gotten to the movie itself, but I suspect you’ve likely already picked up in the comments that I’ve made my response to it. Simply put, Notorious is an excellent film from an excellent director that, while it may not be his very best certainly shows why he has to be considered as one of the most elite film-makers of all time.

It’s a movie that showcases a number of Hitch’s favorite tropes – especially that of a relatively “common man” (though in this case the “common man” is female) caught up in unexpected circumstances beyond their experience or control. In a way, one could actually consider it largely a gender-swapped version of North By Northwest – which, just by the way, also appears on the list at number 54.

not5It also is a movie that shows why the director is so highly ranked among his peers as it contains a number of unique camera angles, editing decisions, and shot set-ups that showcase a great dramatist at the height of his game.

And finally, it is a movie that – no matter how various actors may have responded to their treatment by Hitchcock both on and off screen, and his reported attitudes toward those who worked under him, once again simply shows just how good he was at pulling quality performances from not only his stars – Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains all shine here – but from those who are also simply there to help populate his films.

In other words, yes, Notorious really is a great film which deserves its place on the list, and one which I highly recommend not just watching, but seeking out if you haven’t seen it already.

And that’s an evaluation I have no problem making at all.


The Brand New Trailer For Breaking The Girls (2013) – Lesbian Strangers On A Train?

Here’s the new trailer for the upcoming film Breaking the Girls.

Well, the influences there couldn’t be more obvious, now could they?

Of course, this certainly isn’t the first time Hitchcock’s thriller has been adapted, though somehow I doubt this new interpretation is going to be quite as funny as the last one:

But I think we can all say we’re grateful not to have had to see Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal making out, so there is that.

A Psycho Acapella – Petra Goes to the Movies (2013)

I’ll be back later with a longer post, but I thought this might be of interest to those of you following the blog.

Petra Haden
Petra Haden

I don’t know much about Petra Haden. According to Wikipedia, she “is an American violinist and singer. She is or has been a member of several bands, including That Dog, Tito & Tarantula, and The Decemberists; has contributed to recordings by The Twilight Singers, Beck, Mike Watt, Luscious Jackson, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Queens of the Stone Age, Weezer, The Rentals, Victoria Williams, Yuka Honda, The Gutter Twins, and Cornelius. She is the daughter of the jazz bassist Charlie Haden; the triplet sister of bassist Rachel Haden (her bandmate in That Dog) and cellist Tanya Haden (married to singer and actor Jack Black) with whom she has performed as The Haden Triplets; and the sister of bassist-singer Josh Haden, leader of the group Spain.”

She’s also recently come out with a rather fascinating CD entitled Petra Goes to the Movies. It features her singing a capella arrangements of music and themes from various movies. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing yet (though it can be found streaming on YouTube), but what  have heard is pretty impressive. Both her vocal style and the arrangements make for quite a unique listening experience.

The track listing for the CD is:

1. Rebel Without A Cause Main Title – Rebel Without A Cause – 2:50
2. God’s Lonely Man – Taxi Driver – 2:01
3. Cool Hand Luke Main Title – Cool Hand Luke – 2:08
4. Cinema Paradiso – Cinema Paradiso – 3:01
5. A Fistful Of Dollars Theme – A Fistful Of Dollars – 1:51
6. Psycho Main Title – Psycho – 2:03
7. Goldfinger Main Title – Goldfinger – 2:11
8. Carlotta’s Galop – 8 1/2 – 3:01
9. It Might Be You – Tootsie – 5:15
10. The Planet Krypton – Superman – 1:22
11. Superman Theme – Superman – 3:55
12. My Bodyguard – My Bodyguard – 2:50
13. Pascal’s Waltz – Big Night – 1:24
14. Calling You – Bagdad Cafe – 4:47
15. Hand Covers Bruise – The Social Network – 4:21
16. This Is Not America – The Falcon and the Snowman – 4:59

For a taste of what to expect, here’s a YouTube video of Pertra’s version of the theme from Hitchcock’s Psycho:

I’ve gotta say I was pretty blown away the first time I heard that. Anyway, if you’re interested, the CD can be purchased through Amazon. (I’ll put a link up on the site’s Facebook page, since apparently WordPress doesn’t allow ’em on these free pages – or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to do it properly.) (Oh, and while you’re there, why not go ahead and click on the “like” button? It’s a great way to stay up-to-date on what’s happening – and going to be happening – here.)

Until next time, happy viewing (and listening)!

The Birds – Alfred Hitchcock’s Zombie Movie?

A note on spoilers to begin: Since this is the first real post here on the blspoilerog, I’m going to go ahead and throw up a general spoiler warning. In these posts I’m going to be talking about varying aspects of movies that I’ve been watching, This may include writing about things that dome would consider spoilers, including the endings of these movies. Those who are particularly spoiler averse may want to avoid reading these posts if they are planning to watch the movie in question. In certain circumstances, such as this one, where I will be discussing events towards the end of the movie, including the ending in at least a vague way, or when a movie contains a particular plot twist that might be considered major, I will try to post a more specific spoiler warning, because I do recognize that even though I may be writing about a movie that is decades old, it’s still going to be new to some people. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get on with it, shall we?

So I recently had a chance to revisit Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds on the big screen thanks to a Hitch film marathon run by our local “art-house” theater the Belcourt Theater . While I was sitting there watching the last thirty minutes or so of the movie, especially the part where our main characters have boarded themselves into the house and are fending off an attack from thousands of mostly unseen birds that what I was seeing could easily be a precursor to George Romero’s 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead.

Here’s the way I see it: In both films you have a threat that at the first seems somewhat innocuous. Ok, maybe zombies are never really innocuous, but at the beginning of Living Dead we don’t even know that the first zombie Barbara and her brother encounter is one. When he first approaches, he could possibly be simply a deranged, perhaps drunken or drug-addled old man. And even when the threat does reveal itself to be more sinister, well, let’s face it, as slow-moving as Romero’s zombies are, if there’s only one around, it can easily be outrun. Likewise, in The Birds, when the threat is simply one bird, such as the one that first swoops from the sky and attacks Tippi Hedren’s Melanie as she’s crossing Bodega Bay, it could simply be an isolated incident, fairly easily fended (and written) off. It’s only when the attacks begin, in both movies, more en masse that the true threat becomes apparent.

Look, up in the sky! Are those birds?!
Look, up in the sky! Are those birds?!

Then there is the aspect of the main characters being cut off from the outside world. In Birds, this isolation is represented by the insular community that is the town of Bodega Bay. In Dead, of course, it is the cemetery and house. In both instances, there comes a point where the only communication our characters can get is one-way via television or radio, and even then they are only given glimpses of what may be the broader picture occurring in the outside world.

Also, in both movies, there is a central question that is never really answered: what is the real reason for, or origin of, the threat? Why are the birds just now attacking? Where have the zombies actually come from? And while there is speculation on these topics in each movie, we (nor for that matter, the characters) are never really given a satisfactory answer. Which is actually okay, because in neither instance does it really matter. That’s not the story the movie wants to tell, because in both movies, the main concern is not with the attackers, it’s with the characters that are being attacked. How are they going to respond to the threat once it becomes apparent? And perhaps even more pointedly, especially in Living Dead with its very timely black lead, how are they going to interact?

Is this the result of a) a zombie attack, b) birds, or c) an all-day Honey Boo-Boo marathon?
Is this the result of a) a zombie attack, b) birds, or c) an all-day Honey Boo-Boo marathon?

Of course, eventually, and this is where the comparison really became obvious to me, both movies end up becoming what is known as a base-under-siege film. In The Birds, our protagonists eventually find themselves boarded up in the Brenners’ home. In Living Dead, it’s the farmhouse that Barbara runs into. In both cases, the characters find themselves essentially trapped and trying to fend off attacks from an unknown but obviously overwhelming number of unseen opponents. As the climax rages, in both films we have scenes where all we see of the birds is their beaks as they try to peck their way through the doors and windows or the grasping hands of the zombies as they attempt to reach, grasp and claw their way towards their victims. It’s this overwhelming force, the sheer number of opponents that makes each respective “monster” truly a credible threat. As long as they keep coming, there is no way that our protagonists are going to escape.

There are, throughout the movies, even more parallels that could be pointed to, for instance in both, there are trails of gas that lead to (in both cases similarly foreshadowed) explosions. There are wild-eyed crazies who want to blame others in the party for their current predicament. And I’m sure there are even more that could be pointed out, but the most striking, of course, is the rather ambiguous ending given to each movie. because in both cases, the threat is never really neutralized. In The Birds, even though the “heroes” do make it out alive, there is still that huge mass of birds just waiting and watching as they drive off, and we know that even though these particular people may have made their escape, (perhaps they were even simply allowed to?) the threat is still out there, and in Living Dead, even though we’re told that patrols are clearing out the area and neutralizing the threat it’s obvious from the several sequels how effective that effort was.

Now I’m gonna be honest here and admit that I haven’t done any real reading on the topic, and it may very well be that Romero has acknowledged his debt to the earlier film. Or not, though it certainly seems obvious that he must have had the Hitchcock film in mind when he was writing his zombie flick, even if it was only subconsciously. And while Hitchcock certainly wasn’t the first to introduce the base under siege trope, it certainly can’t be denied that he not only brought his own flair to it, he really made it his own. But it’s that ability that shows him for the true genius that he was.

And in the end, let’s face it, no matter what parallels there may be, intentional or not, both films are true classics, and should be simply enjoyed for what they are: Simply Great Movies.

Until next time, happy viewing!

By the way, I should note, since this is the first “real” commentary post, that comments are not only welcome, they’re invited. Whether you agree or disagree with my take on a particular flick, I want to hear from you. Especially as I’m working on building the site and getting things set up here. Let me know what you like, what you dislike, etc. Just click on the “Leave a Comment” button below and do it, and pretty soon I’ll also have up links to my Facebook page and an address where you can email me directly if you so desire. For now, though, thanks for reading, and i look forward to hearing from you.