Want to experience something frightening? A lot of Alfred Hitchcock movies will disappear from the Criterion Channel at the end of January. But this is not only about the Master of Suspense. Movies by Billy Wilder, Nicholas Ray, Julie Dash, Elia Kazan, George Stevens, and more will also disappear.
See them before February.
A+ Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best! James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us – but not on them – that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as treating his audience to a great entertainment. Read my A+ Appreciation.
A Nightmare Alley (1947)
A carnival makes a frightening backdrop for a film noir, especially if it stars Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. No one can trust anyone else, whether they’re playing with magic tricks, money, or sex (“My heart is like an artichoke; there’s a leaf for everyone.”) Power plays a mentalist supposedly reading minds, but his real talents are those of the carney: tricks and fakeries. With the help of his wife (Blondell), he becomes famous; but as he rises, he’s just digging a bigger hole to fall into.
A The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Widow and mother Shelley Winters makes a very bad choice for her second husband – a cruel, sanctimonious, violent, and criminally insane preacher (or fake preacher) played by Robert Mitchum. Told mostly through the eyes of two children who must survive their new stepfather, the story is grim, atmospheric, frightening, and haunting. Then, in the last act, Lillian Gish shows up as a practical, down-to-earth savior of lost children. I think it’s some sort of Christian allegory, although I’m not sure about what. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director, it makes you wish he made more.
A Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a small-town girl begins to suspect that her beloved, newly-arrived Uncle Charlie is a notorious serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming). Then he begins to suspect that she suspects. Cotton’s performance makes the movie; most of the time he’s warm, friendly, and relaxed, but he can quickly turn dark and say something frightening. Written in part by Our Town playwright Thorton Wilder. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa.
A Woman of the Year (1942)
Few Hollywood movies accurately convey the ups, downs, and sideways motions of romantic love in a long-term commitment. Sexist by today’s standard, this love story between two independently minded professionals was cutting-edge feminist for its time. Its story of a couple who love each other but can’t easily stay compatible never ages. It also started one of Hollywood’s most famous real-life romances – that of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Directed by George Stevens from a screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin.
A Cape Fear (1962)
Robert Mitchum plays a wretchedly horrible human being who stalks and threatens a reasonably healthy family, with extremely dishonorable intentions. Gregory Peck plays the loving patriarch who must protect his wife and daughter from this human monster. An exceptionally suspenseful noir thriller, largely set in a wilderness where one could easily die, and just as easily hide a body. Not to be confused with Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.
A- The Lusty Men (1952)
Nicholas Ray examines masculinity in this modern western drama set in the world of the rodeo. The lusty men of the title are irresponsible, bad with money, and courageous to the point of stupidity. The women who love them suffer for it. Robert Mitchum stars as a former star of the rodeo circuit with one too many injuries. When he latches onto a happily married couple (Arthur Kennedy and Susan Hayward), you know there’ll be trouble. Read my longer report (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).
A- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Alfred Hitchcock’s remake of his own 1934 thriller throws an ordinary American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) into the middle of international espionage—a favorite Hitchcock plot device. They witness the wrong murder, so evil foreign spies kidnap their son to force their silence. Shot partly on location in England and Morocco. Thrilling and fun in that Hitchcock-patented way.
A- On the Waterfront (1954)
A thug-run union and conflicted loyalties drive this revered drama, shot on location in New York. Marlon Brando stands out amongst a brilliant cast as a half-bright dock worker struggling between loyalty to family and his own conscience. Yet some plot twists are just too convenient. A bigger problem: Both writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan named names to get off the anti-Communist blacklist, then made this film to justify their acts of cowardice.
A- Ace in the Hole (1951)
Billy Wilder at his most misanthropic. A once-great, now washed-up newspaper reporter with a lot of talent and no scruples, stumbles upon a big story: A man is trapped deep inside a cave, his legs pinned beneath rocks. The reporter (Kirk Douglas) hoping to milk the story for as long as possible, pulls strings to delay the rescue. It carries a heavy message–which feels very timely these days–and extremely bleak. And yet this is one of Wilder’s best. You can read my full article.
A- Daughters of the Dust (1991)
The story is simple, but the layers of atmosphere and culture make it something special. Set in an island off the Carolinas at the beginning of the 20th century, Julie Dash’s first film brings us into the Gullah way of life at a time when it appears to be dying. An old woman, one old enough to remember slavery well, watches as members of her extended family move north to find better lives. Arthur Jafa’s beautiful cinematography helps create a sense of magic at a time when magic seems to be dying out.
B+ A Face In the Crowd (1957)
Andy Griffith gives an over-the-top but powerful performance as a down-and-out country singer turned television personality, then demagogue, in this surprisingly prescient drama about the effects of celebrity and politics. If you know Griffith only from his TV work, you’ll be surprised that he had this in him. The cast includes an excellent Patricia Neal, a not-yet-famous Walter Matthau, and a very young Lee Remick. The film’s occasionally preachy, as if writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan needed to be sure that everyone would get the message.
B+ Frenzy (1972)
Hitchcock’s penultimate movie isn’t up to his best work, but it still has that special touch. This innocent-accused-of-murder thriller, set and shot in his native England, harkens back to the low-budget potboilers that first made him famous. It’s also his only R-rated film, and it’s interesting to see what he did and didn’t do without the confines of censorship.
B+ Panic in the Streets (1950)
This is a strange film to watch during a pandemic. A ruthless killer (Jack Palance in his first big screen performance) murders a man dying of pneumonic plague. Richard Widmark plays the military doctor whose job it is to contain the likely disaster–which includes finding the criminals (oh if it was that easy in real life). Set and shot in New Orleans, the suspense tightens by the minute. The terrific climax is exceptional. Zero Mostel plays a nicer criminal.
B+ Strange Culture (2007)
This documentary/narrative hybrid mixes scripted drama performed by professional actors with the real-life people those actors are playing. Steve Kurtz woke up one morning to find his wife dead. Then he was arrested as a bioterrorist. The terrorism charges have been dropped, but as of the time the film was completed, he was still awaiting trial for mail fraud (although no one was defrauded). It’s hard to go wrong with so powerful a story, and writer/director Lynn Hershman Leeson makes an effective piece of agitprop.
B Siren of the Tropics (1927)
In my first real Josephine Baker experience, I discovered something I didn’t know. The African American dancer who delighted Paris wasn’t just sexy, outrageous, and utterly unique. She was also very funny. But about the movie: When Baker isn’t on the screen, and that’s most of the first half of the movie, it’s the dullest of silent melodramas. Luckily, the second half has a lot of Baker, and when she’s on screen, the movie becomes magic. Yes, the film is racist, but nowhere near as racist as an American film from that period.
B Rope (1948)
Not Alfred Hitchcock’s worst film, but easily his most frustrating. Two young men, clearly homosexual (although that couldn’t be stated in those days), kill an acquaintance for thrills, then throw a party with the body hidden in a chest. Unfortunately, Hitchcock made two big errors. First, he cast James Stewart in a role that in 1948 was still outside his acting range (it wouldn’t be for long). Second, he made the movie in eight ten-minute shots that give the impression of a single 80-minute take (which wasn’t technically possible back then). That later decision robbed him of the ability to edit, and Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock.
B Saboteur (1942)
An innocent man is blamed for a dastardly deed done by evil, foreign spies. Now he must run from the law while chasing the villains. Hitchcock used this basic plot three times (the others are The 39 Steps and North by Northwest), and while Saboteur is the weakest of the three, it’s still quite entertaining.
B Laura (1944)
Here’s a whodunit made when film noir was just coming into bloom. Dana Andrews stars as the very noir-like police detective; he’s the sort of ’40s cop who drinks on duty. In fact, he drinks with the suspects while trying to unravel the mystery of the title character’s murder. The suspects are the two men who loved her: the snooty, wealthy newspaper columnist (Clifton Webb) and the not-so-rich fiancée (Vincent Price before mustache or horror movies). Gene Tierney plays Laura in flashbacks and…I really can’t tell you more.
C Crossfire (1947)
This cheap post-war noir detective story isn’t a particularly good movie, but is historically interesting in many ways. First, it’s probably the first Hollywood film to deal with American anti-Semitism (Gentleman’s Agreement came out four months later). The book it was based on, Richard Brooks’ novel, The Big Foxhole, was not about anti-Semitism but homosexuality – and sometimes you can feel it. It also provides good performances to four actors soon to become famous: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and (no Robert) Gloria Grahame.
Long ago recommendations
I’ve seen, and liked, all the films below, but not recently enough for me to write about them.
- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
- The French Connection
- Gentleman’s Agreement
- Ghost World
- The Year of Living Dangerously
Other films you may want to catch
- Family Plot
- Long Day’s Journey into Night
- Meet John Doe
- Mommie Dearest
- Platinum Blonde
- The Snake Pit
- The Swimmer
- Torn Curtain
- The Trouble with Harry
You can see all of the films that will go away come February.