Like denim or Dr. Seuss, Alfred Hitchcock never goes out of style. But the director is particularly hot right now: Anthony Hopkins stars as the master of suspense in a forthcoming feature (simply titled Hitchcock) about the turbulent making of Psycho, which director Sacha Gervasi has billed as a love story between Hitch and long-suffering wife Alma. HBO's take, The Girl, aired Oct. 20 and examines Hitchcock's abusive manipulation of The Birds star Tippi Hedren.
Such films make more sense if you've seen Hitchcock's originals, of course. You can do just that—in glorious 35 mm!—at Cinema 21, which is holding its first Hitchcock festival. Here are four to watch.
Grade: B Hitchcock had binders full of women at his disposal, but with The Girl having just debuted, Tippi Hedren is the Hitch belle du jour. Hedren allegedly became an object of obsession for Hitch while shooting The Birds and Marnie, after which Hitch apparently torpedoed her budding career. Interesting, then, that Marnie—more so than masterpieces Rebecca and Vertigo—is such a stark portrait of psychological violence against women. The film centers on a disturbed thief (Hedren) who serially robs her employers and fosters a deep fear of being touched by men. When her boss (Sean Connery) discovers her game, he forces her to marry him. The two set off on a honeymoon, where Connery seeks to understand her inner torment and ends up taking possession of her body and mind. Marnie lives in a world of constant terror, portrayed by Hitch with a heavy coat of psychoanalytical exposition. Perhaps the director, who famously treated his actors horribly to coax out the best performances possible, was just messing with Hedren. If that's the case, it worked: It's Hedren's best work. So much so that there's nary another role you'd remember her in. Hitch was a possessive man, even when he criticized his own tendencies. APK.
Grade: A When Notorious was released, The New York Times wrote that Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht had "done a forthright and daring thing: they have made the girl, played by Miss [Ingrid] Bergman, a lady of notably loose morals." She speeds, she gets drunk, she shags on an early date. Egad! But while Bergman's character no longer feels so risqué, the romantic thriller has retained plenty of bite. Bergman plays the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who is recruited by U.S. agents—including Cary Grant—to infiltrate a group of Nazis in postwar Brazil. Though Bergman's Mata Hari-style turn is masterful, the real drama comes not from the tale of espionage but from the film's fraught romance. Grant won't fess up to his love for Bergman, and his plot drives her to the bed of Nazi ringleader Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), who also falls in love with her. Rains is delightfully complex, both iniquitous and sympathetic. (Fun fact: He wore elevator shoes to appear taller next to the 5-foot-9 Bergman.) Bergman exudes a sort of lusty elegance, matched by Hitchcock's exquisite camera work. One of the film's more outdated scenes is also one of its most memorable: To circumvent the ban on kisses longer than three seconds, Hitch staged a devilishly extended scene (kiss, nuzzle, rinse, repeat) between Bergman and Grant. Loose morals, indeed. RJ.
Grade: A- Despite my name, it took me quite a while to make it to Rebecca. I dismissed the Daphne du Maurier novel for its oft-lurid cover, and once I discovered Hitchcock in high school, I stuck to his better-known films. But it's a shame it took me so long, because Rebecca—Hitch's only Best Picture winner—is a thing of haunting beauty. A gothic melodrama set in a spooky Downton Abbey-style manse, it's less a thriller than a morally complex tale of power, manipulation and vulnerability. Laurence Olivier, broody as ever, stars as Maxim de Winter, an aristocrat who marries the young and innocent Joan Fontaine (her character is not named) after his first wife, Rebecca, drowns. But at their Manderley estate, the clumsy and naive Fontaine provokes intense hatred from the servant Mrs. Danvers (a menacingly creepy Judith Anderson). All thick fog, swirling mist and driving rain (Fontaine first sees Manderley through the car's windshield, as the wipers cut a semi-circle on the glass), the film could survive on ghostly atmosphere alone. But the characters give Rebecca its real juice—the controlling but unhappy Maxim, the malicious and lonely Mrs. Danvers and, most of all, Fontaine's transition from girlish naif to desperate co-conspirator. The claustrophobia and hysteria of Manderley seem to suffocate Fontaine, whose posture droops under its pressure. Word is that a remake of du Maurier's novel is in the works, but see this one first. RJ.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Grade: A There's a reason that, more than 60 years on, Strangers on a Train still conjures genuine unease. "Everyone has somebody that they want to put out of the way," as Robert Walker's iconic villain puts it, forming the setup for an oft-imitated plot device, the murder swap (see: Horrible Bosses or Throw Mama From the Train). When Walker's Bruno Anthony meets unsuspecting tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a train, he bombards the politely dismissive jock with theories on everything from how to live your life to how to end somebody else's. Taking Haines' ineffectual nodding as a verbal agreement, Bruno promptly offs Haines' gold-digging wife, then begins to demand Haines do the same to Bruno's own father. What follows is a tense two hours of classic cinema, from the tense scenes at a carnival to the violent homoeroticism that has had scholars pondering the film since its release. Perhaps most iconic, though, is Walker himself, whose villain is the most frightening kind of crazy. Charismatic and handsome, he regales any listener—even a senator—with his theories about clean energy and space travel as casually as he talks about killing people out of convenience. Even scarier, most people are lured in by his wayward smile. If the film took place today, Bruno Anthony just might be recast as a politician. APK.
Also screening: The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest.
SEE IT: The Hitchcock Festival is at Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., on Friday-Wednesday, Nov. 2-7. See cinema21.com for showtimes and ticket prices.