Alfred Hitchcock/USA/1950-56; R4
Warner Bros, NZ$9.95 each | Reviewed by Tim Wong

CULTIVATING a serious streak during his Warner Bros years, Alfred Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense found gravitas in films like The Wrong Man (1956), even if the public were less than enamoured with the results. A commercial disappointment, it’s an example of Hitch at his most solemnly straightforward, forgoing his trademark cameo so as to not detract from the real-life ordeal of Manny Balestrero, embodied here by Hollywood’s noblest star, Henry Fonda. Mistakenly identified and charged with armed robbery, Fonda walks the line as an innocent everyman defiled by the justice system; his loving wife, the undervalued Vera Miles, lacks the same grace under pressure, committed to an asylum after seeds of doubt trigger a mental breakdown. The striking New York locations inject some much-needed soul into the true crime material – a noir without any moral grey areas – as do several unusually heartfelt scenes between Fonda and his family. As such, the film is never bogged down in austerity, but remains one of Hitchcock’s saddest tales all the same. Tellingly, when Fonda finally confronts an institutionalised Miles with news of his acquittal, we’re afforded neither a medical miracle or moment of joy – just the bitter pill of an end credits coda to swallow.

Better still, I Confess (1953) elevates several classic Hitchcockian conventions – the wrongly accused man within the skin of a classic morality play – to heights seldom reached and largely overlooked. It’s one of Hitchcock’s sharpest films; subdued in visual dexterity, yet carried by a mesmerizing tableaux of intense religious architecture and old world milieu, it achieves gothic parity with the haunting Rebecca. Like The Wrong Man, Hitch favours locations (specifically, Quebec) over soundstage configurations where possible, and I Confess feels less of a genre conceit and much more of a dramatic breakout that belies its theatrical origins. Montgomery Clift is all forehead and eye movement, fiercely impressive – although as some will argue, diverting in his method overacting and chiselled Clark Kent good looks – as a conflicted priest burdened with the murder confession of a colleague. The Wrong Man’s underlying Catholicism is a pungent feature too, with Clift holding firm to the clerical oath as he, invariably, is suspected of the crime whose perpetrator he uneasily conceals. Karl Malden is a terrier as the film’s homicide investigator, while Anne Baxter is great value in one spectacularly incongruous sequence: a wildly romanticised flashback concerning a love affair with Clift that, as Peter Bogdanovich points out, is almost as phony as Stage Fright’s infamous ruse.

A memorable anomaly, Stage Fright’s (1950) duplicity derives from its opening ‘fake flashback’ – where Marlene Dietrich establishes herself as the killer, and frames the shifty Richard Todd in defence. Jane Wyman, playing a novice actress-turned-amateur sleuth, poses as Dietrich’s personal assistant to get the dirt on the theatre star’s murdering ways and clear Todd’s name, although like us, has had the wool pulled over her eyes. In breaking narrative protocol, Hitchcock was the first to admit that the flashback’s inconsistency with the film’s ending was an oversight not realised until after the fact, but credit where it’s due: decades ahead of its time, Stage Fright pre-empted that infuriating nineties trend of mental illness as a scapegoat, where unfathomable twists, left-of-field reveals, and arbitrary plot trapdoors were justified by schizophrenia, split personalities, or general distortions of the mind. Whether or not you buy its contentious denouement, Stage Fright is delightful horseplay: it’s one of Hitch’s sprightliest and most amusing films, peppered with cheerful comedic touches; Dietrich belts out her famously nonchalant rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’; and Wyman is just adorable, ever appealing as a plain-Jane ingénue before reigning as a domestic melodrama queen, with eyes you could lose yourself in – as Hitchcock’s camera regularly does.

As riveting artifice, Dial M for Murder (1954) adapts from another winning stageplay, but unlike Stage Fright and I Confess, is rooted firmly to the spot. A talky, intricately detailed chamber piece confined to a single apartment, it’s well in keeping with Hitchcock’s pet themes of blackmail and murder, and can even stake its claim as possible inspiration for Woody Allen’s Match Point: about an all-British tennis player (Ray Milland) who schemes to off his wife (Grace Kelly), together with Crimes and Misdemeanours it might as well be considered the genesis for that film. Following a botched attempt on Kelly’s life – a signature sequence of girl-in-peril that culminates in a rather lurid self-impaling – the plot regains momentum with Milland scrambling to cover up his complicity. After a no-nonsense inspector (John Williams) arrives on the scene, the powers of deduction begin, with proceedings dovetailing into a neat, if all-too-genteel finale: sure enough, the culprit is caught, but not before offering those involved a sportsman-like drink in defeat. This hilarious surrender to decorum – as if criminal and detective had just played Wimbledon – wouldn’t fly without the terrific Ray Milland, who strikes a villainous balance between smarm, cunning, and gentlemanly arrogance. Leaving far less of an impression than in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly decorates the film’s interiors, which Hitch shoots as imaginatively as Sidney Lumet did 12 Angry Men – the added incentive being it was earmarked for 3D. Tightly coiled, Dial M for Murder is gripping, resourceful suspense, even if it feels like it was made in Hitchcock’s sleep – punched out with minimum effort, to maximum effect, as only he was capable of.

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ACCOMPANYING these films are four retrospective documentaries, each 20-minute overviews – Hitchcock CliffsNotes, if you will – with succinct insights from Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel and others, who provide various trivia, historical anecdotes, critical asides, plus their own personal appraisals. In addition, Dial M for Murder is supplemented by a brief history in 3D cinema (Wellingtonians may remember a rare double-bill of Dial M and House of Wax in 3D at the Paramount several years ago), as is I Confess, with a throwaway newsreel of Anne Baxter glammed up before the film’s gala premiere.