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Archive for Sunday, September 16, 2001

Mighty Hitchcock produced hits and misses throughout his intriguing directorial career

September 16, 2001

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When the 50 great horror movies were announced a while back I knew, with you, that there'd be a lot of Alfred Hitchcock movies there. "Psycho," predictably, was No. 1. It was first even though it takes a long time getting to the point and has only three or four really scary scenes.

This is quibbling. Of course it's No. 1. After we saw "Psycho" we started referring to sleazy-looking motels as "Batesers." Janet Leigh says she's still afraid of showers.

There were some Hitchcock omissions on that list. What about "Foreign Correspondent"? How about that windmill scene, or creepy little Edmund Gwenn trying to push Joel McCrea off the Westminster Cathedral balcony, or the assassination scene? Where was "Shadow of a Doubt"? This, I think, was Hitchcock's favorite, a splendid thriller set in a small town, Teresa Wright slowly realizing that kindly Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is the much-wanted "Merry Widow murderer."

"Dial M for Murder" was on the list. One thrilling, suspenseful scene. I don't think "The Lady Vanishes" made the list, but maybe English pictures were excluded. "The Birds" is a good one; I saw it just recently.

Hitchcock seldom missed. When he missed, he missed big. There's a dog called "Jamaica Inn," from a Daphne du Maurier thriller, but it did give us Maureen O'Hara. Hitchcock had a bad few years: the draggy "Paradine Case," then "Rope," then "Under Capricorn" (a mess), then "Stage Fright." He was back in style with the wonderful "Strangers on a Train," missed again with "I Confess," and then never really missed till he got to "Marnie," "Torn Curtain," and "Topaz." His last two were all right, "Frenzy" and "Family Plot."

There were minor slips in the good years. "The Man Who Knew Too Much," a remake of his 1934 English thriller, was down a bit, and "The Wrong Man" looks as though someone else should have made it. Some critics didn't like "To Catch a Thief," but I enjoy this one, especially when Cary Grant and Grace Kelly are in a scene together.

I don't know the silent Hitchcocks. The first "Man Who Knew Too Much" doesn't hold up for me. He really scored with "The 39 Steps," Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together throughout the Scottish Highlands. (Did either have to go to the bathroom?) I don't care much for "Secret Agent" and "Sabotage" (I was never quite sure what was going on). I finally saw "Young and Innocent," which wasn't bad.

"The Lady Vanishes" was his last English movie, Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, the suave villain Paul Lukas, and little Dame May Whitty, a vanishing spy.

Are you with me in my liking "Rebecca"? This picture never misses, Joan Fontaine, the foolish heroine, handsome Laurence Olivier, the old mansion, the insidious housekeeper, Judith Anderson. OK, this got the Oscar that should have gone to "The Grapes of Wrath," but, never mind.

Then came "Foreign Correspondent." Then came a trivial comedy, "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," which did have Carole Lombard. Then "Suspicion," and you wonder why Joan Fontaine could be in love with the wastrel Cary Grant. Then "Saboteur." This was weakened by Hitchcock having Robert Cummings as leading man, but it had thrilling scenes. Next the eloquent "Shadow of a Doubt," and the tricky one-scene experiment, "Lifeboat," a good one.

I like "Spellbound." So there. Even the psychiatric nonsense. One of the best Hitchcocks was "Notorious"; pretty heavy, and how could Cary Grant be so rotten to Ingrid Bergman? This is a classic. And "Strangers on a Train." What evil in Robert Walker, and what stupidity in Farley Granger. This is a great movie.

And the mighty ones of the '50s. "Rear Window," which never misses, James Stewart and Grace Kelly; "Vertigo," in which Kim Novak actually acted; "North by Northwest." Oh, the crop-dusting scene, and Grant and Eva Marie Saint climbing around on a president's nose on Mount Rushmore.

I don't believe Alfred Hitchcock ever won an Oscar for directing. In my opinion a great many of his pictures could have been named best in their particular years. And do you remember how some critics shot down "Psycho"? Now it's one of the leading legends in motion picture history.




Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.

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