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Tonight, Corcoran will be celebrating the sly genius of Alfred Hitchcock in during this magical Uncorked event tonight which we took as a perfect excuse to rerun this consideration some of our favorites from his oeuvre. Needless to say, EVERYONE wanted to write about VERTIGO (then Notorious, then Rear Window) but between eight of us, we managed to divvy it up relatively fairly and squarely.

William Alberque on “Strangers on a Motherfuckin’ Train”

If I were to write about my favorite Hitchcock film, it would be Vertigo (the shock of seeing the restored version at the Uptown alone deserves its own essay). Rather, I am moved to write about the less-well-known “Strangers on a Train.” Strangers stays in my memory for many reasons, not the least of which is the winning performance of a supporting character that is too often played by a stand-in – Washington, DC. There are some tantalizing glimpses in the film – the brilliant camera movement of the opening shot at the old, pre-restoration Union Station, the gliding night-time escapades in Washington and Arlington mansions, a few glimpses of exterior shots on Capitol Hill. I constantly find myself scanning the screen throughout for the changes and differences between Washington then and now, as if some secret neighborhood, some long-forgotten building will loom into view and imprint itself on my memory.

The movie burbles on, untroubled by a plausible script, fueled instead by the repressed homoerotic tension between the marvelously insane Bruno, and the weak-willed Guy. Bruno, played by Robert Walker with wit and camp and foppish verve,
chews the scenery and neatly balances the introverted and conflicted performance of Guy, as played by Farley Granger.  Interesting to note Granger’s other appearance in a Hitchcock film was as one of the homosexual stranglers in Rope some three years prior. The women in the film are similarly balanced, with the cruel and slutty Miriam paired against the kind and elegant Anne. The light-dark, weak-strong, criss-crossing, contrasting opposites theme is strong, with two brilliant centerpieces of the film – both involving death and destruction – staged in an amusement park to further contrast joy and sorrow. See also the clever use of “The Band Played On” as a motif.

The first set-piece contains a shot that highlights the growing and audacious technical mastery of Hitchcock in the 1950s – the astonishing image of Bruno strangling the adulterous Miriam reflected in her discarded glasses. Film students still marvel at the sequence and the genius it took to bring that to screen with the tools on hand. The second is the set piece on the Ferris wheel – a combination of elements – the music, composite shots, models, explosions, undercranking, and flying scenery – which still seems as seamless and heart-poundingly tense in this era of super special effects and CGI. Other great touches like the giant telephone (you’ll know it when you see it) and some cracking comic relief provided by Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia, and Bruno’s wacky family give the proceedings further energy and verve. Still, it’s a trifle of a film – without the gravitas of Notorious or North By Northwest or the unremitting tension of the Birds and Psycho – and it goes down a treat. Not all entertainment has to be art.

Alan Zilberman on “Vertigo”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0bV2gh4E7Y

More than any other director of thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock is capable of breaking your heart. This is because the Master of Suspense has an unmatched visual style and knows you better than you know yourself. He knows how to pique your interest, engage your sympathies, and (most importantly) increase your blood pressure. Vertigo is a stunning example of Hitchcock’s control, as it expertly manipulates his hero along with the audience.

James Stewart stars as Scottie, a retired San Francisco cop who is hired to follow Madeleine (Kim Novak), a strange woman with a dark secret. What Scottie uncovers is just as important as how he uncovers it. By the time it’s over, Hitchcock fills Scottie with unfathomable lust and rage. The mysterious woman goes through an equally torturous wringer; an accessory of a rich man’s steel-hearted plot, she denies her true feelings and devastates Scottie to the point of mania. Hitchcock accompanies his air-tight plot with breathtaking set-pieces; the infamous bell-tower sequences are particularly lethal in their precision. And as with all classic Hitch, Vertigo’s more memorable shots have influenced today’s most successful directors (e.g. Terry Gilliam, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch).

Part Freudian nightmare and part tragedy, Vertigo sinks its claws into you and flays your insides until they’re ribbon.

Logan Donaldson on “Dial M For Murder”

I love this movie for the wrong reasons. Or likely, all the right reasons, which Hitchcock and screenwriter Frederick Notts cleverly implemented into their classic thriller, Dial M For Murder. Specifically, I mean how much I cheer for the antagonist of the movie, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), who blackmails an old associate to murder his cheating wife Margot (Grace Kelly). There is a measure of empathy for Tony, who is being cuckolded by Margot, but would rather quench vengeance than seek severance. The pleasure comes in watching his vulpine craftiness unfold in a plot to blackmail a potential assassin, and the calculated steps necessary to kill Margot. Tony reminds me of rooting for Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction or Bill The Butcher in Gangs of New York, who respectively form a synthesis of qualities in Tony, that of sympathy and devilish charisma.

Heightening the drama is a sense of claustrophobia. Aside from a restaurant scene and a brief court drama, the large majority of the film takes place in a small London flat. The only things that really change are camera angles and the varying expressions of turmoil that crop on Tony and Margot’s faces, as both of their secrets emerge in unexpected ways.

Gareth Moore on “Rope”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCFP6vDkSUE

“Murder is an art. And as such, the privilege of committing it should be reserved for those few who are really superior individuals” – Rupert Cadell, Jimmy Stewart’s character in Rope.

Filmmakers who weave their tales with style are always fun, but their style can have good and bad effects. Perhaps their ideas will heighten the drama, or set their story apart from the clichés that came before, but sometimes becoming aware of the film’s structure pulls you out of the experience; you are no longer along for the ride, letting the story grip you, instead you remember this is just a film.

When I first saw Rope I had an experience somewhere in between those two. The story was intriguing, but throughout the first scene something felt strange. I realized this scene was moving uninterrupted for a long time. As the film progressed I noticed the entire film was built on long unedited takes; when there is an edit the camera zooms into an object and out without ever revealing the cut (the reason for this is because, at the time, their film camera could only shoot 10 minutes of film before they needed to reload the camera; these days you can use digital cameras to shoot an entire film in a single take). Although I grew aware of Hitchcock’s technique while watching the film the effect was far from negative. The first scene moves with great speed as the camera follows the two murderers around an elegant loft, capturing their verbal jousting. The choice to let this scene play out sans edits made me more immersed in the story; without the usual cuts I began to feel the weight of every second, and every word. Rarely have I, or a story, felt so present. A big part of this is due to Rope’s birth as a play. The wonderful feeling the film gave me is akin to the dizzying highs I have had from great theatre. Today when plays are adapted for films without any cinematic touches it can be boring. Obviously, Hitchcock is not just an ordinary filmmaker, which is why his subtle touches enhanced the story tremendously.

Since Hitchcock wanted the film to flow seamlessly without losing any of his visual flair, he and his team needed some creative thinking. They created a set where everything was built on rollers. This was done so Hitchcock could put the camera where ever he needed to without stopping the scene. The problem is when the camera is pointed one way all of the stage hands had to quickly rearrange the set to make way for the next shots. Equally tricky was the backdrop of the city skyline featured outside the living room’s large window. Without the usual jumps in time Hitchcock needed to have sky gradually change from day to night without you noticing. Somehow he achieves this, but I’m unsure how. I still marvel over this one feature because it seems effortless. That’s one of the funniest elements about Rope: all of it seems effortless, yet none of it is.

A quick take on the plot: Rope studies two college boys committing the perfect murder. Why? It’s simply for the thrill of the kill, but also because they could. They murder a man who, they believe, is only taking up space in the world. The twist comes when they decide to throw a party, with all of the victim’s friends and family. As all of them merrily talk in the living room they grab their food and wine from a large table…only it’s not a table, it’s a coffin, and the victim’s body is inside. Such a wonderfully sick idea, and it’s exactly the sort of story that would appeal to me. It’s gripping watching two killers tease the crowd, almost inviting them to figure out what they’ve done. John Dall and Farley Granger are terrific as the murderers. Jimmy Stewart plays Jimmy Stewart. Thankfully he plays him very well; unfortunately it makes him less of character and more of a type. I have no idea how Rope is regarded within Hitchcock’s canon, but I still find it to be a highly entertaining thriller.

Peter Eramo on “Notorious”

In Alfred Hitchcock’s impressive oeuvre of films that spanned over half a century, his 1946 thriller Notorious is perhaps the one I most enjoy. And, OK, I’ll admit it — it isn’t necessarily because it marked a turning point for Hitchcock as a filmmaker or for its tremendous moments of suspense and passion. If I am truly honest with myself, it’s because I get to sit and gaze at Ingrid Bergman for 100 minutes – for my money, perhaps the most beautiful woman to ever grace the silver screen. How’s that for immensely astute film knowledge for ya?

In a nutshell, Alicia Huberman (Ms. Bergman), the daughter of a convicted Nazi, is asked by T.R. Devlin, a U.S. government agent (Cary Grant) to spy on a group of her father’s Nazi friends who have relocated to Brazil. Ms. Huberman has a somewhat tarnished reputation for her drinking, partying, and having more than just a few male playdates in her past. Nevertheless, Devlin falls hard for the beauty and she in turn is head over heels in love with him. But it doesn’t last long. Against his will, Devlin gives her assignment to her – to ingratiate herself with Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains in an Oscar-nominated performance), one of daddy’s Nazi friends and, as it turns out, a man who fell in love with her years before. She is to find out as much as she can about what he and his Nazi pals are up to. But how far will she go for her country? And how far will Devlin let her go? {cue suspenseful music here}

Notorious is one of the few films of Hitchcock that I can watch at any time and continually go back to. On one hand, I admire the fact that Notorious represents many “firsts” for the venerated director. Here, he gets a producer credit for the first time. He also tackles his mother issues head on. Leopoldine Konstantin, one of Germany’s finest actresses, plays the tyrannical mother of Mr. Sebastian with great force and presence. No longer background fodder, this mother is fully examined and appears as a major character – a sign of things to come in Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie. Notorious also marks Hitchcock’s first attempt at a serious love story. Despite the espionage factor and all of the moments of suspense and danger, the central force of the film is its potent love story. Apart from the historical context of the film, there are just so many enjoyable moments throughout.

The key to the wine cellar is certainly one of the most prominent props in all of Hitchcock’s films. The scene where Alicia is hiding the key in her hand and is confronted by Sebastian is filled with great suspense. The long shot that starts high on the balcony overlooking the luxurious estate and slowly tracks in to a close-up of Bergman’s hand is masterfully done. The scene in the wine cellar, where Grant and Bergman are racing for clues is beautifully edited and always has me on the edge of my seat. Rains is stellar here, giving a measure of humanity to his villainous role and the moment he realizes that his precious key is missing — the way he stares at Bergman going up the grand staircase is haunting. There is also the terrifying moment when Alicia realizes that she is being poisoned to death and we see through her faint eyes – the dizzying silhouettes of the two figures who are trying to kill her. When she is carried up the stairs and screams, “No!,” she knows she is being led to her deathbed – and it is painful to watch for we know that she is trapped and helpless. The chemistry between Grant and Bergman is strong – though each time I watch the movie, I always question Devlin’s actions throughout the movie – Hitchcock pitched Notorious as “the story of a woman sold for political purposes into sexual enslavement” – and you just want to slap Cary Grant across the face because you know that if just said, “Don’t do it, Alicia! Run away with me” at any time, Bergman would have done so in a heartbeat.

Erin Homles on Rear Window

When I think Hitchcock at his best, I think Rear Window (1954), which remains a smart, thrilling, relevant piece of American cinema. If you have not yet found time in the past 57 years to see this movie, you’re probably still already familiar with its premise since, like many of Hitchcock’s iconic works, Rear Window has been reused, retooled, or alluded to in a half-century of film and television. A globe-trotting photographer (Jimmy Stewart!) with a broken leg, a doting girlfriend (Grace Kelly!), and suddenly too much time on his hands starts snooping on his neighbors and eventually thinks he sees something he shouldn’t have (spoiler alert)… a murder. The film impeccably explores the notions of paranoia and voyeurism, two of Hitchcock’s favorite themes that have also come to define our own generation (example, if you need one: at this very moment I have Facebook and a Jersey Shore rerun open in other tabs of my internet browser).

Rear Window has everything you want in a movie: star power with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly and a romantic sub-plot between them, intriguing dialogue and camera movement, carefully-placed mise-en-scene, mystery, SUSPENSE. The last is in all-caps because no one does SUSPENSE like Hitchcock; the climax of Rear Window can literally bring you to the edge of your seat. Crucial to that suspense are the well-crafted cinematography (long, point-of-view shots) and the creatively simple setting (just an open apartment window for the majority of the film, to help create the claustrophobia and helplessness of the wheelchair-bound protagonist).

Film-lovers love Rear Window because it is also just fabulously meta: the lead character uses his camera lens to look through other windows like they are little TV screens, each its own box that tells a character’s story, whether it be of romance, grief, fun, or horror. To quote Stella, one of my favorite characters from the film (which is actually quoting a Readers Digest article from 1939), “We have become a race of Peeping Toms.” Preach, Stella, preach! That’s more than true 72 years later, which may be terrifying in and of itself… So go make space for this timeless classic on your Netflix queue, give it a chance when it pops up on Turner Classic Movies on that night you decide to stay in with a glass of wine, or at the very least check out SNL’s Rear Window skit on Hulu, with January Jones as Grace Kelly (it’s pretty good).

Zach Goldbaum on “North by Northwest”

Early Hollywood directors like Frank Capra and John Ford considered themselves craftsmen — not artists — and for a while, the rest of the world echoed that sentiment. It wasn’t until the cineastes at Cahiers du cinéma (the French film journal that helped launch the New Wave), started reassessing the works of Hollywood filmmakers did the critical community pay the entertainers in the West their due, and it was Hitchcock who first got their attention.

I love North by Northwest because it’s definitely one of his more “Hollywood” films, which disguises just how artful it is. It’s a high-concept thriller replete with mistaken identities, star power, and memorable locales — the United Nations, precipitous cliffs, cornfields, and, of course, Mt. Rushmore contribute to some of the most iconic shots in cinematic history. Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill is like Don Draper, but better — a smooth-as-can-be adman-on-the-lam — and Eva Marie Saint is the perfect Hitchcockian foil — delicate and alluring. It dodges the stuffy “high art” label with its big budget action and the star charisma of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, but with an intricately crafted plot and velvety charm, it sneaks in as a great piece of art.

Svetlana on “To Catch a Thief”

The “cool blond” and the “dapper troublemaker” are two of Hitchcock’s Hollywood character mainstays but never do they come so perfectly together on screen as in his love letter to the Riviera and embodied by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. As a bored heiress and a dashing reformed cat burglar they team up (or do they?) to catch the new “Cat” Grant’s copy-cat thief who is ruining his reputation. The movie, which could easily have become just one of those “vacations you take while on your couch” razzle dazzles, stays glued together by the insane chemistry between the two leads and you find yourself constantly distracted from the amazing landscape shots by the smallest flip of Kelly’s hair or the way she just so touches Grant’s arm. This is not a woman you can say “no” to and the one slick seduction scene they share is pure on-screen perfection.

More so than maybe some of the other movies discussed here “To Catch a Thief” is here mainly to entertain and it does it’s job really well: all catchy details and a game, dandy John Michael Hayes script allow for plenty of both verbal and visual surprises (like that car chase scene that would probably give you vertigo) and for a tight 1:45 hours, you won’t look anywhere else but at the screen. Which, these days, is a rare treat.

Please feel free to share your favorites or your opinions about our favorites in the comments. For more details about his AFI retrospective visit: http://www.afi.com/silver/

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