Classic Movie Review: To Catch a Thief (1955)


Title: To Catch a Thief
Release Date: August 3, 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

John Robie (Cary Grant) is a jewel thief known as “The Cat” who reformed himself by serving with his gang in the French Resistance.  When a string of high-profile jewelry thefts strike the French Riveria, Robie falls under suspicion of the police, who want to arrest him, and his gang (now the staff of a restaurant), who want to kill him for bringing negative attention to their group.  Robie decides he needs to prove his innocence by catching the new jewel thief in the act.

His investigation leads him to American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), a nouveau riche woman who acquired pricey jewels with her family’s oil wealth, and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly).  Frances takes an interest in Robie, and a better part of the film is the two of them flirting intensely. At one point, Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the young daughter of Robie’s Resistance colleague, joins in to compete with France for flirting with Robie.  Never mind that he is old enough to be their father.  After all, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are among the most attractive and charming people to ever live, so who can stop them from shameless flirting. Launch the highly symbolic fireworks!

Their isn’t much mystery or suspense in this film.  The options for who the real jewel thief may be are limited.  I was kind of hoping it would end up being Frances.  (SPOILER: It is not Frances).  So this film basically coasts on its lead actors charm and basic hottness, but my god, to they ever have a lot of that to spare!

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Strangers on a Train (1951)


Title: Strangers on a Train
Release Date: June 30, 1951
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Transatlantic Pictures
Summary/Review:

Two men meet on a train leaving Washington, DC. One is a tennis star with aspirations for going into politics, Guy Haines (Farley Granger).  The other is Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), a layabout son of a wealthy family. Bruno initiates conversation and soon reveals that he knows a lot about Guy, not just his tennis accomplishments, but his personal life as well, and perhaps this meeting is not happenstance.

Bruno knows that Guy wants to marry the daughter of a US Senator, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), but first has to divorce his unfaithful wife Miriam (Laura Elliott).  Bruno floats the idea of murdering Miriam in exchange for Guy killing Bruno’s father, a “murder swap” where neither man would have motive for the crime.  Guy tries to brush off the proposal as a joke, but Bruno takes it as agreement.

After killing Miriam at an amusement park, Bruno consistently harasses Guy to carry out his part of the deal.  The tension builds over whether or not Guy will be pressured to go along with the plan as the police begin to make a case against him as Miriam’s murderer.  Or, what will Bruno do if Guy continues to resist.  I have to say the movie played out in ways I didn’t expect, although it veered into melodrama at times.

This being a Hitchcock film there are some great technical moments.  Miriam’s murder is depicted reflected in her broken glasses on the ground, a startlingly beautiful shot for such an horrifying event. The denouement of the film plays out at the same amusement park aboard a merry-go-round that’s spinning out of control, which is filmed spectacularly (although I think it’s wrong that no one in the movie never acknowledges that the police shot and killed the ride operator).  Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) has a great role as Barbara Morton, Anne’s younger sister who takes a lurid interest in the details of the murder.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Rope (1948)


Title: Rope
Release Date: August 26, 1948
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Transatlantic Pictures
Summary/Review:

Rope is famous for being a story told in real-time, shot in long takes, and edited to appear as if it was filmed in one take.  The technical accomplishment serves the film well as the suspense build in this story of two young men who murder their Harvard classmate as an experiment of their intellectual superiority.  The victim, David Kentley (Dick Hogan), is choked to death in the opening scene of the film by Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger), who then place his body in an antique chest. Dall and Granger are suitably loathsome and arrogant in their performance (if this movie was made today they’d probably be MRA/Incel types).

While Brandon exults in the murder and the party he’s planned to hold with David’s body in the chest, Philip in anxious about getting caught and becomes increasingly erratic.  The guests for the party are David’s father Mr. Kentley (Cedric Hardwicke), hid aunt Mrs. Atwater (Constance Collier), and his fiancee Janet Walker (Joan Chandler).  Brandon also invites their friend and Janet’s ex-boyfriend Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) as part of plot to get Janet and Kenneth back together now that David is out of the picture. Also in attendance is the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson performed with a scene-stealing ebullience by Edith Evanson.

The final guest is Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart), a publisher, who was the housemaster at the prep school Brandon, Philip, David, and Kenneth all attended.  It was Cadell who introduced the intellectual ideas of the “art of murder” in philosophical conversations. Brandon believes Cadell will be impressed by what they’ve done.  The conversations at the party about the right of “superiors” to murder “inferiors” is especially chilling since this film was made shortly after the Holocaust (although it is based on a play from the 1920s).

As the party proceeds, the guests are largely put off by Brandon and Philip’s boorish behavior and worried about David’s absence.  Cadell grows suspicious, leading to the climax of the film. This movie is deeply suspenseful and well-acted in addition to its technical accomplishments.  The dialogue seems a little stiff and perhaps to reliant on stage-play conventions.  This is a good movie, but with its thoroughly devastating depiction of evil, it is not a movie that will make one feel good.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Notorious (1946)


Title: Notorious
Release Date: September 6, 1946
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

I never knew how much I needed to see a drunk Ingrid Berman angrily cuss out a cop, but this movie satiates that desire.  And that’s only the prologue!

Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, an American socialite whose father is convicted as a Nazi spy.  Federal agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits her to help infiltrate a group of fugitive Nazis operating out of Rio de Janeiro.  Much like The Stranger, the issue of Nazis continuing to operate was clearly a concern in the immediate aftermath of WWII, but I’m still impressed that entire films of fictional Nazi fugitives were written and produced so soon after the war. One odd thing about this movie is that while it primarily takes place in Brazil, I don’t think we see a single Brazilian character.

En route to Brazil and as they establish themselves in Rio, Huberman and Devlin fall in love.  This leads to a racy-for-1946 scene where the couple kiss for over two minutes.  Of course, considering that most human beings would like to kiss Bergman and/or Grant, this is also wish fulfillment for the audience.  Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the romance leads a character to act unprofessionally, but this time it’s the male character Devlin, whose jealousy will ultimately put Huberman’s life in peril.

Huberman is tasked with getting acquainted with her father’s friend Alex Sebastian (Hollywood supervillain Claude Raines), a financier of the German war engine, and find out who he’s associating with and what the Nazis are plotting.  The movie is a slow burn as secrets are revealed one by one and the steps that Huberman takes to gain access further strain her relationship with Devlin.  It all leads to a satisfying denouement.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)


Title: The Stranger
Release Date: July 2, 1946
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: International Pictures
Summary/Review:

This atmospheric film in the film noir style tells the story of a Nazi war criminal hiding among the unsuspecting citizens of a Connecticut town. As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I’m surprised that so many of these classic films I’m watching are set there, particularly one with Nazis.  The film begins with Edward G. Robinson (who I liked so much in Double Indemnity) Mr. Wilson of the War Crimes Commission releasing a low-level Nazi named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in hope of leading him to one of the Nazis most notorious masterminds.

In Harper, Connecticut, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) has taken the identity of Professor Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boys academy, and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.  Rankin murders Meinike so that his past identity will not be revealed and attempts to bury his body in the woods.  Wilson stays in the town for several weeks hoping to catch Rankin in a mistake that reveals himself, as well attempting to shake Mary’s faith in her new husband.  The thrill of the movie is less of a “whodunit” than a “how is this going to shake out?”

Billy House is featured in a prominent role as Mr. Potter, the gossipy druggist who comments on the goings-on in the town while playing checkers with his customers (including Wilson and Rankin).  House provides comic relief but his character is also oddly unsettling.  Storywise the script is fairly predictable and dialogue unnatural, but it’s worth watching for the acting, and Welle’s use of light and shadows and long takes.  It’s also remarkable that a fictional film about a Nazi war criminal was completed so soon after the end of the war.  Additionally, it is the first film to include documentary footage of the liberation of concentration camps.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Spellbound (1945)


TitleSpellbound
Release Date: December 28, 1945
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

I’m a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and Gregory Peck, but this is not their best work.  The main setting of the film is a psychiatric hospital and the characters are psychiatrists, but the melodramatic and amateurish presentation of psychiatry hurts the film.  I don’t know, maybe this film appeared cutting edge to audiences in 1945.

Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, a skilled and competent psychoanalyst who nevertheless is mocked and derided by her male colleagues (a realistic if frustrating portrayal).  Unfortunately, the story seems to buy into their sexism as Constance falls in love with a patient and rather unprofessionally goes on the run with him as she seeks to save him.  That patient is Peck’s character, initially thought to be the new hospital director, Dr. Anthony Edwardes, but soon revealed to be an impostor.  Peck’s character suffers from amnesia, a guilt complex, and a phobia of parallel lines on a white background.

Their romance and attempts to “cure” him don’t come off as particularly realistic, but I do like how Constance is able to piece together the mystery of what happened to the real Dr. Edwardes.  There’s also a great dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali which, although it is full of corny psychoanalytic symbols, is visually stunning.  This is not a great film, but an enjoyable enough mystery/thriller with two of the great actors of the time. Also, if you’re my children and you come into the movie with 15 minutes left, you will have a lot of questions.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Inception (2010)


Title: Inception
Release Date: July 16, 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Legendary Pictures | Syncopy
Summary/Review:

This action/thriller drops one right into the midst of a heist where corporate espionage is achieved by using technology that allows entry into other peoples’ dreams to steal their most sensitive thoughts.  Leonard DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb leads a team of extractors while contending with the guilt of losing his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who appears as an antagonist in his dreams.  Businessman Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires Dom with a proposal to perform “inception,” that is rather than extracting a thought, actually placing an idea into the mind of his main rival’s heir.

In typical heist movie fashion, Dom pulls together a team to carry of the inception. A key figure is Ariadne (Ellen Page), an architecture grad student new to the shared dream world who asks all the questions the audience wants to ask.  Nevertheless, Inception doesn’t make much sense and like The Matrix – a clear influence – internal logic is dispensed with if there’s an opportunity for a cool gun battle.  I do like Inception more than The Matrix, though, as it has much more heart.  And honestly, who ever expects dreams to make sense?

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Cat People


Title: Cat People
Release Date: December 25, 1942
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

This horror/thriller stars French actress Simone Simon as Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant in New York who believes she is descended from people who turn into cats if aroused or angered.   She meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and they strike up a relationship and eventually marriage, although Irena refuses to kiss (and presumably consummate the marriage although the Hays Code won’t allow this to be mentioned).  Oliver is patient and tries to get Irena psychiatric help.  Eventually, Oliver’s work colleague Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) admits she’s in love with Oliver and they begin spending more time together.  Irena is enraged with jealousy and Alice finds herself being tracked by an animal.  The film makes it’s low budget an advantage by keeping the panther in shadows and making the audience question whether the big cat is real or merely psychological.

Roger Ebert classifies Cat People as a Great Movie, but I believe it is merely good.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Suspicion (1941)


Title: Suspicion
Release Date: November 14, 1941
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Summary/Review:

After watching several screwball comedies, it was alarming how similar this psychological thriller begins.  Was Hitchcock making a statement on screwball comedies, or is it just a coincidence? Shortly after their first meeting, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) pursues Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) across a meadow, and then grabs her hair and starts to readjust it.  This is a huge red flag for Johnnie’s bad character, and yet how many screwball comedies begin with a “goofy” character breaking personal boundaries?

Lina, convinced she’ll become a spinster, is drawn in by Johnnie’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude.  After they elope and return from a honeymoon, Johnnie reveals that he is broke, has no job, and spends much of his time gambling.  Lina catches Johnnie in several lies as he continues to gamble, and even embezzle, behind her back.  When he proposes setting up a speculative land business with his friend Beaky (a wonderful performance by Nigel Bruce), Lina suspects that Johnnie is planning a con. And when Beaky dies, Lina begins to fear that Johnnie is a murderer and she will be his next victim.

The conclusion is cleverly ambiguous: is Johnnie really attempting to work through his compulsions and Lina’s imagination is running away with her suspicions? Or, is Johnnie lying and successfully conning Lina once again?  My understanding is that the Hays Code considerably changed the source novel significantly to be acceptable for filming, but I think Hitchcock worked well within those restraints to make a compelling drama.  Plus, Fontaine puts in a fantastic performance, and Cary Grant, who I’ve always liked, is very creepy and unsettling.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Jamaica Inn (1939)


 

Title: Jamaica Inn 
Release Date: May 15, 1939
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Mayflower Productions
Summary/Review:

This Alfred Hitchcock period drama wasn’t originally on my (growing) list of classic films I need to watch, but I decided to watch it on a whim.  This was Hitchcock’s last film produced in England before he went to work in Hollywood.  It’s also the first of three Hitchcock movies based on the writings of Daphne du Maurier (the others are Rebecca and The Birds).  But most importantly this is the major film debut of Maureen O’Hara, whom I’ve crushed since I was a callow youth.

Set in Cornwall in 1819, the titular Jamaica Inn is the headquarters of a crew of wreckers, who lure ships to wreck on the rocky shores, kill the crew, and plunder all the valuables.  The gang is lead by Joss Merlyn (Leslie Banks), who is also the innkeeper and husband of Patience (Marie Ney).  Mary Yellen arrives from Ireland after the death of her mother to live with her Aunt Patience, but her stagecoach driver fears the seedy atmosphere of Jamaica Inn and drops of her off at the estate of local squire, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton).

Mary gets caught up in events when she rescues a member of the gang, Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton), who the other members attempt to hang on suspicion of embezzling.  Jem ends up being an undercover law officer trying to find the mastermind behind the wreckers and teams up with Humphrey to investigate.  But all is not as it seems.

O’Hara is great in her role and shows a lot of agency for a female character in that era.  And yet, the film also depicts a society that’s absolutely terrifying for a woman as Mary’s life is in the hands of cutthroats and gentry alike, with implications of even worse things that the Hays Code wouldn’t allow to be shown.  There’s a moody atmosphere to the setting and some interesting camera angles looking through holes in a ceiling and a cave that add to sense of things closing in around the characters.

Laughton is suitably smug as the aristocratic gambler. Behind the camera, he was a pain in Hitchcock’s butt, taking control of directing the film.  He was also responsible for bringing O’Hara into the movie and they’d appear together again in The Hunchback of Notre Dame later that year. On the whole, the rest of the acting in the film is not too strong.  Marie Ney in particular appears to be reading her lines for the first time from a cue card.  The last third of the film veers toward melodramatic.  Still it was a suitably entertaining jaunt into the Cornish past.

Rating: ***