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Two Great, Two Ho-Hum Alfred Hitchcock

Two Great, Two Ho-Hum Alfred Hitchcock

Believe it or not, not all Alfred Hitchcock films are great Alfred Hitchcock films. Here’s a tit for tat featuring two worthy early Hitchcock thrillers and two of his ho-hum period pieces that miss the mark.

 

The Lady Vanishes

Who has or hasn’t seen the lady in question causes railcar mayhem in this 1938 mystery as travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle. A rambling governess, saucy maids, and cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the for the cricket scores introduce the scandalous bare legs, stoles, caviar, and champagne. Men in bed together is jolly good innuendo amid Americans getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. Incognito affairs, musicians, doctors, magicians, and foreign diplomats are all interconnected. However, a hit on the head begets a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, and slight of hand illusion. Some genuinely don’t recall seeing the eponymous woman; but lies, lawyers, ulterior motives, and that unreliable bump on the head cast doubt about who’s on what side. Train whistles pepper the constant travel hum, rail montages, rear projection, and black and white photography – keeping the confined setting fittingly well paced with perilous comings and goings between cars. Although some magic tricks, sardonic comedy, and humorous cargo should have happened before the seriousness and nondescript bad guys and contrived leaps help the shootouts; tea in the dining car alone and suspicious wine glasses escalate to political secrets, nationalist conspiracies, and international chases.

 

Jamaica Inn

Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII) and Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man) star in this 1939 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s tale brimming with nineteenth century lawlessness, shipwrecks, and the perilous Cornish coast. Blustery waters, sailor screams, and ye olde montages are well done as dangerous carriages, pub plotting, and racketeering add brutality for our spunky niece and her lecherous uncle. Who is double crossing whom and pocketing a percentage? Eavesdropping, spying from above, and perspective camera angles are early Hitchcock hallmarks along with up close knives, a wrongly accused man, and winding stairs. Potential opposites attract banter sets off the rescues, ironic twists, surprises, and enemies in disguise. Unfortunately, it’s tough to tell the henchmen apart amid chatty smuggling delays that are neither scary nor scandalous. Regency marriages are rough, and women both help or hinder the crimes as needed or just remain helpless. The usually on point Laughton’s fake nose and obvious eyebrows become Doctor Evil ham thanks to ridiculous scene chewing parody, and the inexplicably comedic villain makes the audience excruciatingly aware of the uneven cat and mouse. While suspenseful if you aren’t familiar with the story, this never fully achieves a truly gothic ominous.

 

Lifeboat

English playing cards and dead Germans in the flotsam and jetsam herald the nationalism, torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and wartime gray of this 1944 self-contained thriller. Dirty sailors, self-absorbed survivors, famous dames, and babies crowd the tiny titular boat as multiple melodramas happen fore and aft thanks to superb rear projection, foreground zooms, background silhouettes, and strategic intercutting capturing all angles. Fog and water sprays compound the undrinkable seas, precious rain, and testy interrogations. Colloquialisms, accents, and translations set off the insinuating conversations and double meanings of repeated “Some of my best friends are…” claims. A compass, typewriter, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers add tangibles to the unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” The diverse ensemble discusses shell shock, lacking supplies, and the burial at sea prayers they don’t know as cold, wet, sleepless vignettes allow the stranded to come clean. Having a then realistic rather than evil archetype Nazi character is understandably controversial, but do they toss the enemy overboard? Strong, smoking, sexy, clad in furs Tallulah Bankhead (Devil and the Deep) is kissing or angry in the same scene, dynamic alongside violent mutinies and sudden twists. Lost materialism gives way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, tattoos, and amputations. Intense poker, lipstick, and flirtations increase as beards grow and tables turn amid storms, hunger, delirium, and suspicion in a no win situation that remains gripping from beginning to end.

 

Under Capricorn

Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca) and Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt) can’t save this overlong 1949 mystery with a clunky narration setting the 1831 Australian scene. Irish history, wealthy governors politicking, and shady land deals are yawn worthy and wooden. The first fifteen minutes of convicts turned businessmen bathing in a barrel should have been excised in favor of the newly arrived scoundrel eavesdropping on a suspect dinner at the creepy manor. Abused staff and an aloof wife discuss the past at the expense of the present, repeating what was just said amid the drinking and social shunning while others freely reveal secrets to strangers. Hitchcock uses long takes, zooms, tracking cameras, and new techniques here in his second Technicolor film. Unfortunately, the colorful Victorian frocks meets Wild West frontier carriages make for a stilted setting with seemingly shocking shrunken heads rolling at their feet that are just plain silly. Strong-chinned dull men, swelling crescendos, and fainting women are typical period piece groans. One can see what Hitchcock is attempting with characters bound to the visual frame paralleling their inescapable history, but it only draws attention to the surprisingly thin story. Despite horse chases, who really shot whom revelations, and deportation threats; the drama never peaks. Supposedly scandalous love triangles, elopements, poisons, and deaths happen off screen before an abrupt resolution. Only the divine uninterrupted tiara ball sequence captures the guilt and performance so lacking in the rest of the film.  

 

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