Midnight Screenings: The Hitching Post

family-shadow-of-a-doubtShadow of a Doubt

It’s no coincidence that Shadow of a Doubt, although several films removed from Alfred Hitchcock’s American debut, was the first masterpiece of his thirty-year sabbatical from British filmmaking. Fine though they were, films like Rebecca – playing around in desecrated aristocratic spaces and cavorting in the hallowed regions of spectral Old Money sticking to you like bones – played to an American producer’s somewhat stilted view of a British director’s propriety. Those not in the know would be excused for assuming they were British productions anyway. But Shadow of a Doubt, the director’s favorite among his own films, is a noir-infested, corrosively polluted work of invasion and sabotage that found the director not only unearthing the world of everyday American suburbia, but taking his newly adopted home to task in the process.

Trading urban caverns and shadowy pastoral limbos for what would become the most American of institutions, jaundiced suburbia, Shadow is Hitch’s viral excavation of the carnivorous underbelly of American outgrowth. Tellingly two-fisting murderer Charlie (Joseph Cotton) and his ostensibly innocent, porcelain niece (Teresa Wright), named after him, Hitch follows the elder Charlie as he seeks refuge in the house of his sister (the niece’s mother). He lays low and injects himself into a new stomping ground, a place unaware of his double-dealing demeanor but a place which he, innocent above his venomous interior, tellingly reflects and embodies. It isn’t for nothing that the director cheekily visualizes Uncle Charlie’s arrival as the fulfillment of his niece’s wind-carried request to spice up her milquetoast American life.

Rejecting a trivializing invader-in-a-safe-land tale, Hitch relies on Cotton’s foppish dandy persona and a surfeit of symbolically rich visual symmetries to underscore the essence of Uncle Charlie as a second-side of everyday society. Hinted through fog-ridden shadows and the black-tar Americana of the train he arrives on, Charlie is not an “other” so much as a dichotomized Janus-head America himself, an exaggerated manifestation of the dueling selves that both distort and construct everyone in the film. The phallic train (Hitch’s most beloved, oft-repeated harbinger of destruction and transformation, be it sexual or moral) gifts Charlie to his relatives as a perverse rereading of America’s great industrial behemoth, cutting through the land only to deliver a marinade of black coal dressed in loafers. Not to infect the once-clean landscape, but to drive its natural darknesses to the surface, to reveal to America what it already is.

Hitch’s cruelty suggests Cotton’s character not as a boll weevil ruining the crops so much as a spade who digs up the already sickened undergrowth around him, from niece Charlie’s dad and his grotesque, fictive crime games with the neighbor to the younger Charlie’s own venomous ability to deal out pain when she needs to. Hitch seeds tremors of shaded terror within every character, even the family matriarch who prefaces the director’s later, more problematic traversal of mother-son relationships. (Freud’s ghost does hover over the film in a one-and-done explanation for Charlie’s murderous intent that would have been better left on the cutting-room floor, but Hitch trammels over that concern by suggesting the infidelity of every character on the screen). The gentility with which Hitch cunningly builds up and tacitly uproots good-natured Americana prefigures David Lynch’s provocative treatment of the same material in Blue Velvet.

Take the way Hitch’s masterclass scene here is something so ostensibly bucolic and everyday as a dinner-table conversation. The camera suggestively probes the intersection of social performance and internal darkness by panning in to Cotton, metamorphosizing his initially gentle features into something more gruesome, as he slips into his other, more malevolent self while the social stage evaporates and the other figures in the frame drop off as the edges move inward. It’s a moment that is alternately feverish and stone-cold, one among many in the deluge of predatory performances and bone-chilling cuts. Cotton, for his part, is sublime in a role that asks him not to diametrically slide between roles but to fold vitriolic gregariousness, calculating guile, and scheming avuncular charisma into single, unclassifiable expressions.

Hitch’s love for Shadow of a Doubt always seemed genuine, although calling it his masterpiece is wishful in light of the embarrassment of riches in many of his later films. Stylistically, Shadow is a tad weightless in comparison to the more tectonic shifts in Hitch’s camera in his films ten years later. This being said, the relative anonymity of the visuals belies a dictatorially calibrated cardboard vision of suburbia where gestures are meant to be covered-up rather than revealed; the seemingly barren, nothing-special visuals transform into a dark-hearted expression of the very normalcy Hitch overturns with an atmosphere of subtle, macabre aggression.

Score: 9/10

eyeglasslensstrangers1951Strangers on a Train

Concluding with a frenzied, carnivalesque maelstrom of male confrontation nearly running off its axis, Strangers on a Train is the logical extension of Hitch’s first American masterwork Shadow of a Doubt. Released eight years later, Strangers begat a startling flourishing of the director’s talents as he snuck on to the phallic train he so lovingly, deviously structured as the ultimate invasive embodiment of modernity in his films. Here, he commandeers that train, and rides it directly into the male id. In doing so, Strangers set in motion a rampaging  black-cloud of a directorial decade that brashly rewrote the rules of American filmmaking and sublimated Hitch’s latent devil-drive to a higher order. After a decade studiously accruing personal clout in America and acclimatizing Hollywood big wigs to his personal fixations, Hitch’s second decade in America would be expended pulling the strings of his masters and burning his newly adopted home to the ground.

Perhaps more accurately, Hitch’s task wasn’t to start the fire on America but to tear down the walls hiding the already-rising fumes. Typically provoking too-pat analyses rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis and, implicitly, a twinge of male homoeroticism brewing throughout the film, more eloquent readings of Strangers instead subsume questions of latent sexual desire into the film’s twitchy, malevolent power dynamics and expression of male society as a barely screwed-together monster. The hook of Patricia Highsmith’s book upon which the film is based – about two men who meet on a train and agree to exchange murders (one treats the conversation facetiously, the other with a grave, winking earnestness) –  is a godsend. But Hitch has already transformed the tale to new heights long before pampered Bruno (Robert Walker) murders the wife of Guy (Farley Granger), and tries to set Guy up when he doesn’t fulfill his end of the bargain by offing Bruno’s aristocratic father.

As a work of cunning craft, the film is indelible, easily trouncing anything Hitch had directed up to that point. Throughout, Hitch’s framing is unusually compact and throat-clenching, even for him; the power dynamics between Guy and Bruno, as well as the symmetry between them, are suggested in the claustrophobic rigidification of the opening moments where the playful-word quarrel between them is undercut by the tightness of the framing that seems to literally knot them together. Later, the film’s signature sequence is a suggestive hunt in a carnival that erases the tidy demarcations between proto-slasher and uncouth foreplay, engorging itself with the rhythms of implicit intercourse before climaxing with a lurid murder-through-glass shot that is one of the most devilish images Hitch ever pulled off. The lovingly-apportioned brashness of the bravura imagery lays to waste concerns of timidity on the director’s part, paving the way for the debt the Italian giallo would owe the master of the macabre a couple decades later.

Crafty though the film’s set-piece sequences may be, Strangers greatest achievement is serving as the inflection point between the inchoate social concerns of Hitch’s earlier works and the burrowing-head-first into full-on film-as-social-exegesis style of his later masterpieces. Hitch’s pervasive visual pairings provoke questions of male confrontation throughout the film, most enticingly the game-set-matching of Bruno and Guy and their latent, masculine urges.

Whatever figment of fey homosexuality is sometimes appended to Bruno fades away, or at least is modified, by his notably hetero assault on Guy’s wife, as well as the domineering assertion of blunt, bestial force he is capable of on a moment’s notice. Perhaps mired slightly in the muck of psychoanalysis though it may be, whatever parental-issues exist on the backburner of the film do not ground it by turning the whole affair into a nasty childhood memory. Strangers is not about homosexuality or psychoanalysis, but the darkness brewing in everyone, and its most potent visuals suggest a uniquely male combat wherein men expend women as currency for controlling other men. The corruptible Guy, his name handed out like a business card for his stand-in role as The American Male, refracts his desires onto Bruno as the film’s increasingly hot-headed crisis of both conscious and ambiguous guilt erupts in a damaged, corrupted finale that peruses the most untapped corners of class roleplaying and the suggestible male ego.

Perhaps the film’s vitality has something to do with the way it has been undervalued and erased from history for decades. (Comparatively, later works like Rear Window were almost instantly parodied, Vertigo has steadily risen to greatest-of-all-time status, and Psycho almost instantly cracked open the casket of a dying medium). More vertiginous heights though he would reach in a few short years, none of the director’s masterpieces feels as clouded by menace, as elusive, and as secretive to this day. But Strangers needs no such grounding within Hitch’s canon, or film history for that matter; its disturbed, deceptively ambiguous treatment of male-on-male and male-on-female relations as corks inches away from erupting in a fizz of repressed, pressure-cooked wanton destruction, feels even more diabolical today.

Score: 10/10

1111Frenzy

Hitchcock’s best film since Psycho 12 years earlier begins by wading right into the infested stillwater the director left when he turned to more glamorous, stillborn films throughout the ‘60s. His return to his native England over thirty years after crossing the pond to dredge-up American horrors a little makes no qualms about its homecoming.  It is nothing less than a perverse and polluted requiem for, and rekindling of, the memories of fog-ridden London serial killers from the turn of the 20th century. Frenzy is an amusingly straight-forward, but not straight-laced, serial killer tale, Hitch’s return to the slasher genre he helped pioneer with Psycho. If anything, though, Frenzy owes greater credit to Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom (Psycho’s kissing cousin and the other de facto “what film started the slasher genre?” trivia answer) for its downright nasty curiosity at overturning the squeaky clean veneer of prim and proper British society. It’s not for nothing that killer Robert (Barry Foster) is a dandy whose weapon of choice is a necktie, a symbol of uptight propriety. Some of the most virtuoso sequences, like the introduction or a stellar backward track from a murder out to the bustling, unaware streets, are tinged with the droll gloom that epitomized Hitch’s early, British efforts. Thus, Frenzy finds the venerable director returning to his native tongue not only behind the scenes but in tone as well, shifting moods away from the rubbed-dry, unbloodied likes of Topaz for a treatment of British urban squalor and gruesome predator-prey relationships with the pickled humor present in his earlier British efforts.

Admittedly, Frenzy looks a little rosier (or dirtier, in this case) in relatives than in absolutes. Sharp and sufficiently lurid though it may be, it is a refreshing rejoinder to Hitch’s ‘60s career (and decidedly superior to Family Plot) more than it is a diamond-encrusted masterpiece in its own right. At times excruciatingly well-executed (some of the camera pans are as lacerating as anything a younger director might have dared pull off), the film’s strengths are nonetheless slightly trivial compared to the director’s indomitable run of ‘50s classics. That being said, the film’s gallows, negative-energy whimsy as a gutted, down-tuned take on the earlier British Hitch vehicles and their relatively genre-bound, less self-consciously important demeanor is part and parcel with Frenzy’s appeal. A full-on grotto not seen with such purity in the director’s canon since The Lodger, there’s a primacy of purpose that is, if simplistic, startling in its directness and in its liberation from the prison cell of “higher thematic ambition”.

Not that there isn’t room for a little coloring outside the pure-slasher lines, as in the film’s signature sequence, an inverted-slasher kill where the killer has to risk his own hide to fumble around with a dozen potato sacks and a truck to retrieve a piece of evidence clasped in the hand of his victim. It’s deliriously droll, even accounting for the standards of the director, and categorically the most British scene the director ever laid his hands on. Trivial, it may be, but only compared to the delirious heights of Vertigo or Strangers on a Train. As a ruthlessly new-school take on an old-school genre, Frenzy is both a harried palate cleanser compared to Hitch’s increasingly anemic ‘60s work and an oddly fitting British twist on the cynical American New Wave Hitch just avoided being part of.

Score: 7.5/10

 

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