A Half Dozen Hitchcocks I Threw Back
My choice came down to how many high definition Hitchcocks I would toss over the side of my hard drive lifeboat. There were ten shown on HD Network and being there’s a limit on digital storage space, I had room to keep but four. Those ended up being Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. With a heavy heart, I deleted the subjects of this post. How soon would one go back to Torn Curtain and Topaz in any case? Would there come a day when I’d actually be able to finish Family Plot and The Trouble With Harry? Lesser Hithcocks have been pretty much identified and agreed upon. It’s settled as to which ones are the crowd pleasers. My own preference saw the aforementioned jettisoned along with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake) and Frenzy. I’m of the school maintaining that Hitchcocks should be clever thrillers first and art second. Serious analysis of his films might better have waited until after Hitchcock died. Would it have benefited the director to be less aware of how great he was? By the sixties, it was no longer enough being merely The Master Of Suspense. Movies became a distraction from receiving honors and fielding questions as to deeper meanings within his oeuvre. More harm than good can come of genius lauded, especially when the genius is trying yet to create entertainment for masses not disposed toward autuerism. Even as cineastes wrote glowingly of his art, Hitchcock was struggling with scripts that wouldn’t work (like Torn Curtain) and Universal executives determined to avoid another Marnie (2.8 million in domestic rentals, the lowest of all AH pics the company released during the sixties and seventies). It seemed the richer Hitchcock became, the more insecure he felt. Stories of his caving to studio demands are disillusioning on the one hand, though in view of Hitchcock’s MCA stock ownership, you can’t altogether blame his watching out for money partly his own. Universal controls the bulk of Hitchcock now. They have since the early eighties when Rope, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, and Vertigo were leased from the director’s estate. Along with Psycho, earlier bought from Hitchcock himself, and those actually produced at Universal, that’s fourteen of the Master’s films in their stewardship, plus the television series. Never have these films been seen to such advantage as on high definition broadcast, an occasion good as any on which to revisit some of them.
Two he signed do not seem at all like Hitchcock films. Even those weakest are filled with moments peculiar to his genius, but The Trouble With Harry and Family Plot are for me imposters, so much so as to make them plain intolerable getting through. To enjoy The Trouble With Harry, one must answer this question in the affirmative: Do you find the idea of a dead body being juggled about in bucolic settings by quirky characters for ninety-nine minutes amusing? I didn’t, still don’t, and the Lord knows, I’ve tried. I wish Hitchcock had never stumbled across the fey little book Harry was based on. Paramount must have wilted when he brought this stray dog home. People defend it by talking about how pretty the leaves are, but wouldn’t another one with Grace Kelly have been more so? There’s something discomfiting about corpses left out in the sun so long, even amidst such an otherwise beautiful landscape. You’re in trouble when the Vistavision fanfare is your favorite part of the picture. A lot of the foliage was brought back to Hollywood, and there’s much talk and lingering in those close studio confines. Maybe when I’m Edmund Gwenn’s age, I will have learned to like The Trouble With Harry. For now, there’s reassurance in knowing others were in accord back when it came a cropper with only one million in 1955 domestic rentals (and so soon after To Catch A Thief did four times that). Family Plot is, if anything, ten times the ordeal. The idea was to present two differing stories for the first half, then have them merge for the second. Neither is engaging, and both are weighed down with the most unappealing players Hitchcock ever used. Was Universal’s casting influence at work here? These people seem better suited to episodes of The Bold Ones than a theatrical feature, let alone one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Again you wish such a story had never crossed his desk. Family Plot is proof certain that even this great director couldn’t make a silk purse from a decided sow’s ear. With material like this coming recommended out of Universal’s story department, you have to wonder what sort of personnel they were hiring over there. A look at much of this studio's output during the sixties and seventies might explain. Were good properties just too expensive? I’ve read Hitchcock habitually underpaid writers and withheld his name from negotiations so he could purchase stories and novels at fire-sale prices. For results he had with The Trouble With Harry and Family Plot, the old axiom of getting what you pay for may well apply.
For me, Frenzy was the great black comedy The Trouble With Harry wanted to be. Every line’s a laugh; by far it’s the funniest strangling sex psychopath picture ever made. Credit goes as much to writer Anthony Shaffer for its success. You wish he’d started earlier with Hitchcock and stayed longer. The picture is not unlike other British thrillers arriving around the same time. A vaguely comic New Scotland Yard pursued The Abominable Dr. Phibes a year previous (could the light tone of that investigation have been at least partial inspiration for Frenzy?). The idea of quaint yet dogged (if amusing) Yard men went way back in British films. Even John Ford mined considerable humor tracking Gideon’s Day. Hitchcock’s Frenzied London was said to have harked back more to the one he’d left thirty years earlier, and thanks be to that, for it’s the UK of cobblestones and fruit stands I like best, having never seen the actual place and imagining since boyhood that Sherlock Holmes and Jack The Ripper still trod its narrow by-ways. Hitchcock shunned the grimy and ephemeral mod, mod, London that Michael Reeves explored in The Sorcerors, and indeed, I wonder if he even realized how radically things had changed on the other side. Food is the stuff of tension and mirth throughout Frenzy. The potato truck retrieval of an incriminating stickpin is justly famous for working on both those levels. You can almost smell incoming produce in Hitchcock’s Covent Garden, and marvel at the variety of hiding places he locates there. Frenzy is the neatest and most straight-ahead job of construction the director had since Psycho, and must have surprised Hitchcock loyalists exhausted by the strain of defending Topaz, Torn Curtain, and Marnie. This was also the master’s first go at an "R" rating and freedom he’d long yearned for. Like an anxious boy handed car keys, he overheats what results in the only truly repellent scene in all his output (and if you’ve seen Frenzy, you know which one). Donald Spoto gets it right with respect to Hitchcock’s disturbances along those lines, and to think the poor man was hauling psychic freight like this at seventy-two! Well, the pictures wouldn’t have been as good had he been normal, but reading those troubled biographies, you wish Hitchcock could have enjoyed a higher comfort level, if for no other reason than as reward for all the marvelous pictures he gave us (there’s an incredible twenty-eight that I consider excellent to great, and your count may well be higher). AH is by far the movie’s best argument that profoundest torment makes for the most enduring entertainment, but hasn’t that been true of art since time began?
My family was at the beach when Torn Curtain opened. We went because Alfred Hitchcock was directing Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. There wasn’t a hotter package in town during the summer of 1966. I was twelve and figured it would be good because AH did scary thrillers like Rear Window and sometimes outright horrors like The Birds and Psycho. Turns out this one was about defectors, a topic about which I knew nothing and cared less. The stars were introduced in bed together, presumably naked. I figured we’d have to leave right then, but cruel fate dictated our sticking out the entire 128 minutes. Hitchcock said Newman and Andrews were foisted on him. That again. I’ve begun to think Lew Wasserman was as much the auteur as AH himself, at least when they were together at Universal. The director wanted to do anti-James Bond spy movies, at a time when audiences (including me) wanted nothing but James Bond spy movies. Secret documents, microfilm, and such had always been secondary concerns in Hitchcock thrillers, reduced to those famous McGuffins he so often dismissed in interviews. Torn Curtain and later Topaz violates the Master’s own rule by attaching too much importance to the espionage. Topaz adheres to plot labyrinths ported over from a best-seller everyone’s forgotten now, and who wanted, then or now, to see ads for a Hitchcock film giving so much emphasis to the book it was based on (as shown here)? I wish he’d stayed away from Cold War subjects altogether, mainly because they’re just too … cold. Hitchcock’s talent was better suited to passionate expression among characters we could better identify with. Globetrotting intrigue worked with him only if the war was getting hot, as with Foreign Correspondent, or barely cooling off, per Notorious. Politics plays lightly upon events in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but for that 1956 remake, Hitchcock wisely kept emphasis upon the kidnap and its effect on James Stewart and Doris Day. The director as master technician was at his peak here. International complications are explored only insofar as they move the personal story along. The humor audiences liked was harder to place once the child is nabbed, as we’re expecting Stewart to shift into obsessive Anthony Mann-hunting mode, and a weakness remains his somewhat tentative pursuit of the kidnappers. Doris Day’s use of Que Sera Sera to flush out her abducted son begs credulity as well, being more than a little anti-climactic after the set piece at Albert Hall. Still, The Man Who Knew Too Much is Hitchcock at his most assured, and if not worthy of top-tier position, certainly earns a place among runners-up. Nothing we care about is at stake in Torn Curtain or Topaz, despite the fact they’re both handsome productions with many moments of Hitchcock magic. Process screens and phony locations are forgivable because this is Universal after all, and having spent lives watching economy minded product from them both in theatres and on television, we’ve long since learned to adapt. Paul Newman said that all during the shooting (of Torn Curtain) we all wished we didn’t have to make it. Julie Andrews got off to an equally demoralizing start when Hithcock told her on the first day that shooting pictures was for him just a bore (preparation being the part he enjoyed). You feel that loss of energy watching it. The saddest chapter played out when the director fired his longtime composer Bernard Herrmann after demanding a pop score, which reason should have told him he’d never get from an iconoclast like Herrmann. Portions of what BH delivered have been grafted onto scenes from Torn Curtain (available as a DVD extra). It’s some of the heaviest and most doom laden music the man ever wrote, the score as defiant gesture hurled at corporate heads and a director cow-towing to them. I’m sure the message wasn’t lost on Hitchcock when he showed up for the disastrous listen that ended with a shouting match and Herrmann’s dismissal. This had to have been the moment where Hitchcock really felt he’d sold out. In case he was too obtuse to get it, I’ve no doubt Herrmann spelled it out for him.
For purposes of selling, Hitchcock wheat was long ago separated from chaff. Most reissues tracked closely with how the shows performed when they were new. Those that Universal leased from the director’s estate were distributed to theatres in 1983. All had been out of circulation for at least ten years (not twenty as this Rear Window one-sheet alleges). A special trailer for the group was narrated by James Stewart, but what misguided editor chose to reveal the ending of Rear Window therein? To release the entire set within a four-week period between 9-30-83 and 10-28-83 may not have been the wisest marketing, for like Fox’s more recent Star Wars revival series, these came in like lions and went out like lambs. Rear Window opened first (9-30-83) with a bang at $4.0 million in domestic rentals, pleasing crowds best of the five as expected. Vertigo followed on 10-7-83 and tumbled to $2.4 million. 10-14-83 was Rope and $650,645 domestic, then The Trouble With Harry (10-21-83) finished slightly up with $727,990. Finally, there was The Man Who Knew Too Much (10-28-83) which did $1.0 million in domestic rentals. 1983 being prior to serious restoration efforts on behalf of library product, all these looked pretty dreadful on theatre screens, and diminishing returns as the series progressed wouldn’t have disposed Universal to spend much cleaning them up in any event. That would come years later when Rear Window and Vertigo got deluxe polishes via Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. Both these were back in theatres upon that occasion, but years of television and video exposure made tickets harder to sell. Vertigo (10-6-96) in 70mm engagements still did $1.9 million in domestic rentals, while a 1-21-2000 reissue of Rear Window scored a respectable $1.5 million. To realize significant theatrical revenue from any library product nowadays is an achievement. Home theatres have progressed to a point where fans with space and resources can duplicate if not surpass most any revival house experience. The missing element remains the appreciative crowd surrounding us as we watch, a major consideration for those looking to experience Hitchcock as original audiences did. Will even high-definition compensate for that loss?