Late Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, but while I’ll often tackle a film or two of his during the Six Weeks of Halloween, they don’t always come with Halloween vibes. The master of suspense is certainly capable of crafting amazing thrillers, and in some cases they are very influential in horror (we’re going to rewatch one of those this weekend), but sometimes you just end up with really tense thrillers.

We’ve got a pretty good mixture of elements with this selection from later in Hitch’s career, and it certainly makes for a, er, contrast to last week’s celebration of gutter trash (*ahem*). It’s also fascinating to see the texture and depth of the visuals that Hitchcock and his cinematographers achieved in contrast to the flat digital affect of the Netflix house style. As such, even though two of these are perhaps not traditional Halloween watches, I really quite enjoyed them:

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 6 – Late Hitchcock

Psycho – Look, there’s not much to say about this that hasn’t been said already by people much smarter than I, but I’m going to try. Let’s just say that if you’re reading this and you haven’t seen it, you should get thee a copy of the new 4K release and watch it, post haste!

It might seem obvious to say that the 4K restoration is the best Psycho has ever looked (on home video, at least), but Psycho wasn’t meant to be a glossy, elegant affair. It was shot on a very low budget and Hitchcock meant for the film to appear a bit grimy, as befits the story being told. The 4K release preserves that dingy feel, maintaining film grain while increasing clarity. My first viewing of Psycho was on a pan-and-scan VHS… we’ve come a long way since then.

Psycho

There’s also an “uncut” version of the film that supposedly represents what Hitchcock originally intended, but don’t worry (or get too excited, depending on your feelings on this sort of thing), the new footage only represents about a minute of screentime. There’s a shot of Marion starting to remove her bra, more focus on Norman’s bloody hands while cleaning up the murder, and a few more knife jabs at the end of the Arbogast murder represent the biggest additions. 

The movie itself remains a classic and perhaps due to its influence, it still feels modern. Indeed, its more transgressive qualities remain fully intact, even as the culture has shifted around it in the intervening decades. For instance, the sequences where Marion keeps seeing the police officer are probably more impactful today than they were at the time. Just visually, the simple choice to have him wearing sunglasses is almost comically effective, and the way Hitchcock deploys closeups of both Marion and the cop ratchet tension up. The sexy stuff is incredibly tame by today’s standards, but it still feels a little risque, especially when you consider the ending.

Psycho

I don’t normally rewatch movies for these weekly theme posts (which is why a lot of these posts feature obscure or forgotten works), but I figured this was a worthy exception to that rule. It’s the most “horror” centric film Hitchcock ever made and it’s a measure of the shadow this film casts that Hitch is seen as a horror director when this is really more of an exception in his filmography… Gets better every time I watch it. ****

Marnie – Meet Marnie! Played by Tippi Hedron, she’s a kleptomaniac whose latest boss, played by Sean Connery, is on to her game. How will Marnie deal with his blackmail games? Hitchcock often plays with certain recurrent themes in his work, and there are some who view this sort of personal indulgence as the height of his career. This sort of praise is most evident with respect to the more famous Vertigo, but Marnie hits many of the same notes. Perhaps because it’s a bit more complicated (read: problematic) on the psychosexual front, it hasn’t garnered more of a following.

Marnie

I’m reminded of a Hitchock ripoff we watched earlier in the 6WH, Trauma. A sorta female-centric retread of Psycho, that movie also recalls Marnie. The character of Marnie is not a murderer, to be sure, but her criminal mind is the result of deep-seated trauma. The film does represent an excellent character study of Marnie though, and Tippi Hedron gives a fantastic performance. Unfortunately, Hitch has a bit of a problem, as represented by Sean Connery’s character. As a sorta psychology dilettante, his efforts to “cure” Marnie of her trauma are undercut by his methods, which include blackmail and even rape. There’s something interesting there worth exploring, but Hitch ends up leaving it hanging like a bad curveball, perhaps expecting the character to get away with it because of Connery’s star power and charisma.

So maybe he bit off more than he could chew, but Hitch is still operating at the height of his craft here. Lots of visual flourishes and motifs are spread throughout the film, and there are several memorable shots and sequences. The only thing resembling traditional horror/suspense flare is the robbery sequence, which is not split-screen but almost framed as such, and Hitch wrings every drop of suspense he can out of it. Textbook stuff, so much so that it might seem cliched at this point, but it’s still a joy to watch the master at work.

There’s a crane shot moving from the second floor down to the first that recalls a similar movement from Notorious, this time leading into a reveal of someone from Marnie’s past that could cause problems (it’s hard to call this a setpiece, but Hitch draws the tension out here as well). The rape sequence is surprisingly restrained, and like Psycho‘s shower scene, almost more disturbing because you don’t really see anything. We just see Marnie’s glassy eyes as the camera dollys and tilts towards the bed. Distressingly effective, even if it’s the most troubling scene of the movie. Finally, there’s a fox hunt scene where Marnie has a horseback riding accident that is just masterfully captured. There’s one aerial shot that almost makes me wish Hitch would have made a classic Hollywood style western.

So it might not quite be the incisive exploration of trauma that was intended, as there are some serious flaws, but I can’t help but appreciate the filmmaking arsenal that Hitch deploys. It almost makes up for the story’s deficiencies. At 131 minutes, it’s a tad long, but I think justified. I can’t help but think that this sort of impeccably crafted dramatic thriller is rarely made anymore, which is also a point in its favor. Perhaps not top tier Hitchcock, but that’s a high bar to clear. ***

Family Plot – Hitchcock’s final film might not light the screen on fire and given where cinema was in 1976, it doesn’t quite stack up, but as a sorta throwback thriller it works better than you might think. And whatever you may think of the film, ending legendary career with a literal wink at the camera is absolutely perfect.

Family Plot

The story concerns a psychic tasked by one of her wealthy clients to find a missing heir. As it turns out, the heir is a cartoonishly evil dude. The whole thing plays out like a subversion, almost a parody, of Hitchcock’s favored tropes. Sometimes this works (that ending wink, again) and sometimes it’s a bit odd (the sequence where a car with malfunctioning breaks careens down a mountain grates a bit). It sometimes approaches (but never fully commits to) farce, incorporating a knowing affect throughout. Still, there’s lots of tightly plotted twists and turns, with a central irony to the mystery that is almost textbook Hitchcock. There’s some great private detective procedural bits and the ending works pretty well.

Ultimately, there’s no way to end a career like Hitchcock’s without generating some sort of disappointment. This isn’t one of his best movies, but it’s certainly not a dud and it might even be an appropriate swansong. **1/2

Hard to believe we’re in the last week already. Stay tuned for the traditional Speed Round of movies I watched but haven’t covered in these weekly theme posts. That should go up on the big day next week.

3 thoughts on “Late Hitchcock”

    1. Yes, I feel like I’m rating on a curve here. Family Plot is 2.5 stars because Hitch has done so much stuff that’s better, but even lower-mid-tier Hitch is better than most…

  1. I really need to rewatch Psycho. I’ve been wanting to do a run-through of the entire series. (Including the Bates Motel TV movie and the much loathed remake.) Maybe next year, as 2021’s Six Weeks are already almost at an end. It goes by faster and faster every year!

    Always great to read your stuff, Mark.

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