Thursday, July 3, 2008

MR. & MRS. SMITH (RKO 1941) Warner Home Video

Alfred Hitchcock once said that if he had decided to make Cinderella his audience would be looking for a body in the coach. Point well taken. Not everything that Hitchcock made was gold, and the few times he attempted to veer away from his tried and true 'wrong man' formula proved infrequent box office disappointments on an otherwise sterling film career.

The demand for Alfred Hitchcock’s services following the back to back smash hits of Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent was overwhelming. While producer David O. Selznick toyed with the idea of developing future in-house projects for his star director, he was also not above loaning Hitchcock out like a prize cow to RKO; in this case for an unlikely dabbling in screwball comedy; Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941).

Scripted by Norman Krasna, the film tells the rather conventional tale of married couple Ann (Carole Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) who are struggling to find reasons to stay married. The problem it seems stems from the couple’s ‘one question a month’ rule.

Ann asks David if given the opportunity to go back in time and, knowing then what he knows now, would he still have married her. In a moment of honesty, David confesses that although he loves his wife he also misses his bachelor's freedom, leading Ann to erroneously deduce that he no longer loves her.

David’s response is made even more problematic when the couple learns that their marriage is not legal because of a state boundary dispute. Recognizing that he has been free all along and assuming the question is therefore moot, David decides to propose marriage to his wife again. Only, now Ann contemplates the practicality of spending the rest of her life with David.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is admirably nutty – masterfully pulled off by Lombard's penchant for playing the frazzled madcap to perfection and by Montgomery's willingness to play Bud Abbott to her Lou Costello. But given Alfred Hitchcock’s proven prowess in the field of suspense one wonders what could have possibly been going through the executive mindset at RKO to hire him for a romantic comedy.

Hitchcock shoots his film with an uncharacteristically non-Hitchcockian flair. His direction is solid and more than salvageable, if not on par with the innate mastery for the genre that directors like Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges both share. In this respect, Mr. and Mrs. Smith founders - badly on occasion - from a complete lack of comedic subterfuge. It's an equitable comedy, but not an outrageously ingenious one.

Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a below par picture quality. The B&W image is grainy, poorly contrasted and contains a litany of age related artifacts. Contrast levels are weak at best. Blacks are a deep gray; whites, a pale gray. Fine details tend to get lost under the patina of film grain. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented. Extras include a very brief featurette on the film and its theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
1.5

SUSPICION (RKO 1941) Warner Home Video

By 1941, Alfred Hitchcock had begun to grow restless with the films he was being assigned under his ironclad contract with David O. Selznick. A reprieve of sorts came just in time with Hitch’s first project for RKO; Suspicion (1941), the story of wealthy wallflower, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) and her inexplicable romantic obsession with male gold digger, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Defying her parents, Lina becomes Johnnie’s wife then slowly begins to realize what a scamp her new husband is.

After the death of her father (Cedric Hardwick), Lina is disappointed to learn she has been left out of his will. For Johnnie, the snub is more serious. He has mortgaged their fabulous lifestyle on the assumption that Lina’s inheritance would bail them both out of debt. Now, Johnnie is forced to find other means to sustain that lifestyle to which they both have become accustom.

Johnnie confides a get rich quick scheme to close friend, Gordon ‘Beaky’ Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), who agrees to help fund Johnnie’s plans – then mysteriously dies after the project is established. Suspecting that her husband may be a murderer – a progressive thought that ought to have led to an entirely different third act in the film – Lina resigns herself to the love she feels for Johnnie, despite her misgivings about his own sincerity in their relationship.

Johnnie tells Lina he is taking her to her mother’s because he cannot stand that she distrusts him. On the way there Lina’s car door suddenly flies open and Lina, assuming that Johnnie is attempting to throw her from the speeding vehicle, fights him as his hand reaches toward her. Instead, Johnnie pulls the car aside and tells Lina that she is a fool. He then further confides that he has always been in love with her – an unsatisfactory bit of tacked-on nonsense that succeeds in convincing Lina to get back into their car and return home with her husband. The two drive off together – all mistrust between them seemingly forgiven and forgotten.

Suspicion is based on Anthony Berkeley’s popular novel. In the novel’s original ending, Lina discovers that her worst fears are true – Johnnie is Thwaite’s killer and is planning to do away with her next for the insurance money. An inexplicable obsessive love prevents Lina from saving herself. Knowing that she will be dead by morning, Lina writes her mother a note of confession, explaining the truth about Johnnie; then asks Johnnie to mail it for her after he has already made her drink a glass of poisoned milk.

Lina dies and Johnnie, believing that he has managed the perfect crime, decides that the least he can do for the deceased is to mail her final letter home. The last shot in the film was to have been Johnnie tossing Lina’s letter to her mother in a postal mail slot – thereby ensuring audiences and the censors that justice would eventually prevail on Lina’s behalf.

But the censors balked at this scenario, arguing that it did not resolve in very clear and concrete terms that justice would prevail over the devious motives of a cold-blooded killer (one of the absolute ‘musts’ in the Production Code of Ethics) and furthermore, that presenting Cary Grant as a murderer would do considerable damage to the actor’s reputation with fans. Unable to sway the censors otherwise, revisions to the shooting script were eventually made and the film’s ending was awkwardly diluted. Though Suspicion did respectable business at the box office, it proved to be less successful than Hitchcock’s previous efforts; the one exception being that Fontaine’s performance as Lina ultimately won her the Best Actress Oscar statuette; an award that ought to have been hers for an outstanding star turn in Rebecca the year before.

Warner Home Video’s DVD release is welcome indeed. Suspicion has never looked better. Though the B&W image still contains instances of obtrusive grain as well as sporadic appearances of age related artifacts, the overall quality is one of brightly contrasted, sharp and refined details throughout. The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented nicely herein. Extras include an all too brief featurette on the making of the film and its theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1.5

LIFEBOAT (20th Century-Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

At Alfred Hitchcock behest, the director was loaned out by David O. Selznick to 20th Century-Fox for an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Lifeboat (1944). The film became the first of Hitchcock’s attempts at shooting an entire movie within the confided space of a single set. In this case, that set is a lifeboat.

The story concerns a small group of survivors attempting to keep body and soul together after their luxury liner has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. The survivor’s list includes feisty reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), mistrustful, John Kovak (John Hodiak), spirited businessman, Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), loyal nurse, Alice Mackenzie (Mary Anderson), proud cook, George Spencer (Canada Lee), lumbering Gus Smith (William Bendix) and trusting Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn).

Along the way this group fish out the captain of the U-boat that sunk them, Willy (Walter Slezak). Although Willy first presents himself as grateful and sympathetic – he slowly begins to despise this lot of Americans as his sworn enemies and thereafter plots how to systematically do away with them one by one. After amputating Gus’s infected leg in order to save his life, Willy waits until the rest of the survivors have fallen asleep before sadistically pushing the cripple overboard.

Claiming that Gus’s death was accidental, Willy next lies about their whereabouts. He is not sailing them toward an American port in Bermuda as planned, but to a German rescue vessel where he will be saved, but the others most likely slaughtered or sent to a concentration camp. Realizing what Willy is up to, Charles incites the rest of the crew to mutiny. They do, killing Willy before the Axis rescue ship is reached. A battle breaks out between the German ship rapidly gaining on them and an American war cruiser looming on the horizon. The German ship is sunk and the survivors are saved.

It is interesting to note that although Hitchcock avoids garnering any direct sympathy for the emotional salvation of his survivors (as they are all guilty of the crime of murdering Willy - albeit for self-preservation) Hitchcock also fades to black before the American war ship has rescued them, leaving their fates an open ended question.

Lifeboat is perhaps Hitchcock’s most finely wrought character drama to date. The performances throughout are top notch. However, Hitchcock infuriated Steinbeck’s sensibilities when he called writer Ben Hecht in to rework several key sequences including the film’s ending. Despite its overwhelmingly positive conclusion – that of the assumed rescue for the survivors - the film was reviewed by the top film critics in the country as un-American and worse – pro-fascist propaganda.

Concerned that this negativity would also cast a disparaging pall on him, Fox’s CEO Darryl F. Zanuck pulled Lifeboat from circulation shortly after its premiere, despite the fact that it opened to positive opening weekend grosses and was doing steady business around the country. Regrettably, Lifeboat would remain buried in the Fox vaults for the next 40 years.

Fox Home Video has released a Special Edition of Lifeboat that belies the poor storage of the original film elements. Working from a print rather than the original camera negative, the overall quality of the B&W image exhibits boosted contrast levels and a considerable amount of grain that loosely translates into digital grit. 
Overall, the image quality is not bad – it just lacks in the areas of refinement and fine details. Blacks are deep. Whites are a dirty dingy mess. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a commentary track by noted Hitchcock expert, Drew Casper, a featurette on the making of the movie and its theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2.5

THE PARADINE CASE (Selznick International 1947) Anchor Bay

The Paradine Case (1947) effectively ended the association between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick with a modest thud. That the resulting project failed to live up to everyone’s expectations (coming directly after Notorious) belies Selznick’s intervention on the project, even though the film itself is consistently charming and moody, if nowhere near the caliber of its predecessor.

Originally Hitchcock had wanted either Ronald Colman or Laurence Olivier for the role of the barrister, Anthony Keane. There is some speculation that Hitch’ also sought the elusive Greta Garbo as his Mrs. Paradine. Disinterested in paying for these loan outs, Selznick assigned his own homegrown contract players to the cast. Hitchcock was disenchanted with this decision. Although he greatly admired Gregory Peck, Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan as actors, he felt all of them entirely unsuited for their roles.

Nevertheless, the project progressed at a grueling ninety-two day shoot – the longest of any Hitchcock film schedule to date. It was always Selznick’s intention to create another colossus – an extensive courtroom melodrama with obsessive love as its underpinning. Working from a script by Selznick and Ben Hecht, Hitchcock chose to acquiesce to Selznick’s demand rather than fight the producer's desires for a really big movie. In the end, Hitchcock delivered a rough cut that ran nearly 3 hours. For once, Selznick felt that a film could, in fact, be too long and, after having disposed of Hitchcock’s services once and for all, he went to work re-editing The Paradine Case down to a modest 125 minutes.

Though the cuts are not damaging to the overall continuity of the story, they do tend to reduce various characters to mere cardboard cutouts. Imminent personalities such as Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore – cast in the film as tawdry philanderer, Judge Lord Thomas and Lady Horfield - simply float in and out of the story rather than becoming an integral part of it. So too, does the ending of the film, at least in hindsight, seem slightly rushed.

The story that emerges on screen is rather threadbare and in viewing the film today one wonders just how much more there might have been to sustain an audiences’ interest for three hours. The plot concerns one Maddalena Anna Paradine (Valli), the late wife of a blind colonel whom she is accused of poisoning to death. It seems Mrs. Paradine has been having an affair with her husband’s valet, Andre LaTour (Jourdan).




On the advice of legal council, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) Maddalena hires handsome hotshot attorney, Anthony Keane (Peck) as her defense. But the trial is made problematic when the married Keane begins to invest in Maddalena’s innocence on the basis that he is slowly becoming enamored with her. Keane’s wife, Gay (Ann Todd) is patient in her love, allowing her husband his romantic fancies because she knows they will come to not; for Maddalena is guilty of the charge.

Given the severity of Selznick’s editing, the distillation of Hitchcock’s suspense into tepid melodrama is perhaps forgivable. The resulting film is much more a polite comedy of manners than a political/crime thriller. There are no surprises, no great complexities to wade through and no rivalry between characters once the audience has figured out that the accused is in fact destined to die.

To date, only Anchor Bay Home Video has managed to release a credible DVD transfer of The Paradine Case. The disc is currently out of print but readily available on Amazon and other websites. The B&W transfer is generally sharp and clean, with only moderate lapses of grain and age related artifacts and the occasional hint of edge enhancement that will not distract. The audio is mono as originally intended and presented at an adequate listening level. The one regret here is that Anchor Bay did not produce either a documentary of featurette on the making of the film.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

STAGE FRIGHT (Warner Bros. 1950) Warner Home Video

Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) marked a return of sorts to Hitchcock’s British period in films. The story of deception and murder was familiar to the master’s hand – though in crafting the piece he made one critical error that threatened to unravel the entire narrative. Hitchcock cast the sultry Marlene Dietrich as greedy chanteuse, Charlotte Inwood. In the flashback that opens the story, Charlotte arrives on her lover, Jonathan Cooper’s (Richard Todd) doorstep with her dress bloodied. She has presumably just shot her husband and is seeking asylum and an alibi.

To protect Charlotte from the crime, Jonathan returns to her home to get her a clean dress. However, in attempting to make the homicide look like an accidental killing after a burglary, Jonathan is discovered by the upstairs maid who alerts the police of her findings. Fleeing the scene, Jonathan relies on his good friendship with Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) to aid in his escape.


Eve harbors an unrequited puppy love for Jonathan and proves the measure of her affections by taking him to her father, Commodore Gill’s (Alistair Sim) remote seaside cabin to hide out for a few days. There’s just one problem: everything until this point in the narrative has been a lie. Told from Jonathan’s perspective, the flashback is a rouse that neither the audience nor Eve is aware of.

The rest of the story is rather benign and meandering as Eve masquerades as a maid to secure employment in Charlotte’s house with the hopes of discovering some evidence against her for the crime of murder. Meanwhile, congenial Scotland Yard Detective Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) has begun to harbor affections for Eve. The nearer he draws to her side, the closer he suspects he is coming to the truth about Jonathan – although oddly enough ‘love’ rather than ‘sleuthing’ seems more on his mind.


Despite these problems in narrative construction, Hitchcock’s direction excels during two pivotal sequences. The first is an outdoor charity fundraiser where Charlotte is scheduled to sing. Doubting Jonathan’s theory about the crime, Eve’s father sends a girl scout up to the stage with a baby doll that he has soiled in a red stain to resemble the blood on Charlotte’s dress. The rouse works, interrupting Charlotte’s performance and drawing suspicion away from the real culprit. The scene is a brilliant bit of Hitchcock staging with hardly any dialogue. But it also tends to support the false premise that Charlotte – not Jonathan – has committed the murder.

The latter moment of artistic brilliance comes at the very end of the film. Concealing Jonathan deep within the bowels of the music hall, Eve confronts him with her suspicions about the crime. Before her very eyes Jonathan crumbles, confessing to Eve the obsessive love that drove him to murder Charlotte’s husband. Hitchcock captures this confession almost entirely in extreme close-up with Richard Todd and Jane Wyman’s eyes growing larger; his with rage, hers widening in fear. Visceral chills end with a chase through the music hall. Jonathan is accidentally cut in two by the steel safety stage curtain. But by the time Hitchcock exposes the truth about Jonathan even the audience finds it difficult to believe that they have been left out of the narrative loop.

Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits just slightly below average quality. The B&W image is often grainy, poorly contrasted and, at times, contains a slight green tinge. Contrast levels are weaker than expected. Though blacks are a very dark gray, whites are a dingy light gray. Fine details are lost during darker scenes. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a scant ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1.5

I CONFESS (Warner Bros. 1953) Warner Home Video

In retrospect, the crisis of conscience potboiler, I Confess (1953) is an underrated Hitchcock classic – a film with a great visual style and a solid story overshadowed by Hitchcock’s more illustrious '50s film fare. I Confess is the story of Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) a Catholic priest who, after learning that his gardener, Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) has brutally murdered the church’s unscrupulous lawyer, is bound by his vow of silence not to pass along this confession to the police.

Father Logan’s faith is tested from all sides, including a subtle threat made by Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden); that his former lover – prior to entering the priesthood - the now married Ruth Grandfort (Ann Baxter) might be called upon to testify on his behalf, thereby making their romance public record. Ruth's husband, Pierre (Roger Dann) is a high ranking political official in the Quebec parliament. Such a scandal could possibly damage his rising ambitions. But it could also ruin Ruth's marriage. So, for the time being, Father Logan remains silent. But Otto is an unscrupulous man who remains fearful that the pressure being exerted on his father confessor by Larrue will eventually become too great a burden to sustain.


George Tabori and William Archibald's screenplay (based on Paul Anthelme's stage play) keeps us guessing as to where Father Logan's eventual loyalties will reside; either with the church and God's intangible promise of unconditional love to those truly devote, or with the more earthly remembrances Logan is determined to keep most private between him and Ruth.  Once again, Dimitri Tiomkin's score heightens the dramatic tension of the story. Ditto for Robert Burke's noir-ish cinematography that transforms the quaint meandering streets of old Quebec into a constricting environment that threatens to squeeze Father Logan's sanity to the brink of a breakdown.

The final act is dedicated to the trial of Father Logan, himself accused of the crime of murder. Ruth comes forward on his behalf and bears her soul to the court, but to little effect. However, Otto's self preservation has shifted its fear from Father Logan to his wife, Alma (Dolly Haas) who also knows about his crime.  When it appears as though Alma is about to expose the truth to save Father Logan's life and restore his reputation with the people and his church, Otto panics and fires a shot into the crowd, killing his wife. Terrified, Otto retreats into the Hotel Frontenac. Confronted by Larrue, he fires at the police who retaliate and mortally wound him. Father Logan arrives on the scene moments before Otto's death to hear his last confession.  

I Confess often gets overlooked in the Hitchcock canon as a minor offering at the cusp of the director's truly golden 50s tenure over at Paramount. That's a genuine shame, because I've always found the film in a class apart from anything anyone - even the master himself - ever attempted again. For one thing, I Confess predates Hitchcock's extravagant use of location work on To Catch A Thief. In both films Hitchcock utilizes his locations not simply for their aesthetic value, but to enhance the overall mood of his story. For another, Hitchcock handles the Logan/Ruth love affair flashbacks with a deliberately 'tacky' heightened sense of realism that elevates the 'rose-colored glasses' recollections of both lovers to impossible ridiculousness. Then again, isn't that how we all tend to reflect on the euphoria of love - with a romanticized viewpoint that only those involved in such an affair would deliberately chose to remember?      

In one respect, I Confess proved an unpleasant working experience for Hitchcock, who ran into considerable defiance from his star, Montgomery Clift throughout the shooting. Having read various accounts of their clashes - and reflecting in hindsight (which is always 20/20) I don't really think Clift wasn't trying to be difficult. He had merely embraced 'the method' form of acting that clearly insists on establishing a character's motivation and thought processes. Hitchcock, however, was all about the placement of the camera in relation to the action. 


During one scene that called for Clift to raise his head as he exited the courthouse, thereby providing Hitchcock with an eye-line match to the subsequent shot establishing the Chateau Frontenac Hotel, Clift reportedly told Hitchcock, “I don’t think my character would look up just then”, to which Hitchcock coolly replied, “Well you better...because that's where my camera's going to be looking.” Despite this confrontational attitude on the set, Clift delivers a finely wrought performance as a man torn between his own conscience and doing the morally right thing. Hasse is a genuinely spooky villain – greedy, vial, yet tragic too in his exploitation of even his ever loyal wife in his pathetic attempts to remain free from incarceration. This is a thriller deserving of more careful consideration and, at least in this critic’s opinion, it belongs in the lower top tier of Hitchcock's masterful suspense classics.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is rather average. The B&W image exhibits a considerable amount of grain and age related artifacts – particularly during the flashback sequence. Otherwise, the image is generally smooth. Contrast levels are nicely balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Occasionally, fine detail gets lost, though overall the image will surely not disappoint. The audio is mono as originally recorded and amply presented herein. Extras include an all too brief ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1