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BONUS: 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Horse Player' [1960]
Source: DVD

Claude Rains is once again directed by Hitchcock, here playing a priest tempted by gambling. It's light-hearted, far removed from 'I confess', but one of the least interesting episodes, I thought. It feels like Hitchcock was twiddling his thumbs with these two episodes, waiting for something more substantial to do after 'Psycho'.
BONUS: 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Bang, you're dead' [1961]
Source: DVD

This is the last episode Hitchcock directed before the show became 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour'. It's an interesting, unusual episode, as it doesn't have a twist and is very much like a Public Service Announcement, complete with an atypically serious epilogue by Hitch. The story concerns a 5 year old boy who finds a gun and heads off into town. Suspense is ramped up as he slowly loads the chamber with more live bullets over the course of the episode, spins it then indiscriminately points the gun at strangers and pulls the trigger. There are good close-ups of the gun, and even a shot reminiscent of the POV scene from 'Spellbound', with the gun in the foreground. As it's 1960's US TV, you can probably guess whether little Jackie Chester actually shoots anyone. Hitchcock ends the episode urging parents to keep their firearms safe from the little ones, an increasing problem at the time, he deadpans.
BONUS: 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: I saw the whole thing' [1962]
Source: Dailymotion [streaming]

The last TV episode Hitchcock directed is a rather slow courtroom drama. It starts well enough, not dissimilar to 'Incident at the corner'. There's a hit-and-run accident at a stop sign, witnessed by 5 people; we see their reactions one after the other. John Forsythe plays the man who later admits to being the driver, turning himself in to the police. He decides to represent himself in court, adamant that the car stopped at the stop sign and the motorcyclist hit him. The episode plays out like a pseudo 'Twelve Angry Men', as Forsythe tries to twist the witnesses' testimonies until either their memories or their prejudices are put into question. It's well acted - Philip Ober turns up again - but hardly gripping. I didn't guess the twist, but even that was anti-climatic.
Week 47: 'The Birds' [1963]
Source: Blu-ray

I remember watching this many, many years ago and being underwhelmed. I was hoping that I would be pleasantly surprised by this rewatch, seeing it in context with Hitch's other films, and rediscover a lost (to me) classic. Alas, it was not to be.

Chain-smoking socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) arrives in Bodega Bay, 2 hours north of San Francisco, in pursuit of square-jawed lawyer and local heart-throb Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The women in the town treat her with suspicion, and the birds treat her as pecking fodder. Feathery chaos ensues.

Having set the bar high with 'Psycho', Hitchcock was determined to outshock himself and his audience with this horror. The fact that he tries so hard is admirable, but the fact that he fails is disappointing. In terms of effects, Hitchcock literally throws everything at the camera, as well as his actors. The mix of live birds, mechanical birds and animation is both impressive for its time and convincing. Hitchcock does well, as would be expected, in ramping up the tension between aerial attacks, especially in the playground scene. The slow build-up from one to a handful to the full reveal of hundreds of ravens on the climbing frame is wonderfully handled. Unfortunately, the flaws in the film overshadow these moments.

Hitchcock is let down somewhat by his cast. Hedren is adequate in her first film, but there is no spark in her that shows she was ready for a leading role. Taylor is cut from the same cloth as John Gavin - slightly wooden. Perhaps he was meant to take the whole thing so seriously, but I would have preferred to see the occasional wink to the camera. The supporting cast are much better, especially Suzanne Pleshette as the lovelorn Annie, and Jessica Tandy as Mitch's overbearing mother. 

What really let the film down for me was the subject matter. I don't think birds are sufficiently scary. Even in the midst of their attacks, they seemed to be more of a nuisance than a serious threat. The scene in which over a thousand birds swoop down through the chimney skirts perilously close to unintentional comedy to me.

Technically, the film is very good - the mattes, the back projection and the effects of the birds themselves are all excellent. The birds-eye shot of the burning gas station is a stand-out, as is the iconic scene of the children running from the school. A suggestion that Melanie has somehow brought this terror to the town was an interesting idea that was dropped as soon as it arose, which should have been more developed, I thought. The film feels abandoned at the end rather than concluded - another mis-step, I felt.

Taken on its own, and by any other director, this would be considered a highlight film. Coming after 'Psycho', and thus inevitably being compared to it, it feels like a letdown.

I watched the blu-ray from the 'Masterpiece Collection'. Like the film, I was underwhelmed. The film looked unusually soft in places - sometimes purposely so, perhaps, for close-ups of Hedren, or due to the amount of effects on screen. The sound was also disappointing, sounding tinny to my ears.
BONUS: 'The Birds II: Land's End' [1994]
Source: VHS

Who knew that there was a sequel to 'The Birds'? Not me, prior to starting this project. Yet here it is, a made-for-TV movie, over 30 years later. The sequel is as indebted to 'Jaws' as it is the original 1963 film, and is the product of that notorious, multi-faced director Alan Smithee. The film actually isn't so bad that it warrants being unclaimed - I've seen plenty worse - but you probably wouldn't be boasting about it in your annual Christmas letter either.

A couple move to Land's End (an island somewhere on the east coast, I was led to believe) for the summer with their two daughters. Husband is a hunky High School biology teacher (and Somali Civil War vet according to the film's Wikipedia page, though I must have missed where that was mentioned). He plans to spend the summer writing his thesis. Wife is a sexy IT consultant? Journalist? Certainly she takes a job helping the editor of the local paper set up a website, or newsletter, or.. you know what, it doesn't matter. The editor is played by James Naughton (and Wikipedia helps me out again in remembering what I couldn't last night as I watched this: where have I seen him before? He was in 'The Planet of the Apes' TV series - a favourite of mine as a child).

Anyway, the film shows its bona fides in several ways: the local Tavern is called 'Tides'; there's a scene where birds amass on a child's swing; husband nails planks over the windows; birds get into the house, and peck through doors; corpses abound with pecked-out eyes; gasoline from a gas pump catches fire and explodes; and the biggest one - Tippi Hedren herself appears as a local storekeeper. Jan Rubes (whom I did recognise as the old Amish guy from 'Witness') recalls similar strange attacks happening over 30 years ago on the west coast in Bodega Bay, lasting two days. From then on, we're in 'Jaws' territory, as High School Biology Teacher (and Somali Civil War vet?) tries to convince the local mayor to evacuate the town. We even get a "this island survives on tourism and you want us to shut down at the beginning of summer?" speech and later the digs at "mainlanders". In the meantime, birds continue to swoop down with increased velocity and violence.

The film is stuffed with subplots and backstory: will the husband get over the death of their only son from a car accident five years previously? Will sexy IT consultant/journalist succumb to the editor's wiles and have an affair? These and other questions are answered in the scriptwriter's mind or on the cutting room floor, as they certainly don't show up in the film. Oh well. The effects are surprisingly similar to those from the original film - surprising in that they haven't improved much in 30 years. Still, I would say that the ending is more climatic than the 1963 film, even threatening another sequel.

It's a completely unnecessary sequel, of course, but since when has that ever stopped a studio? Even so, I was strangely entertained by it. That's not a recommendation, though. Perhaps I'm trying to justify to myself that I didn't completely waste my evening.

I watched a full-frame VHS on a 4K widescreen TV. It was awesome.
Week 48: 'Marnie' [1964]
Source: Blu-ray

Marnie is a thief and a liar. But what else? She has phobias about the colour red, thunderstorms, the sound of tapping and men touching her, as well as a one-sided relationship with her mother. Can handsome Mark Rutland break down Marnie's defences and unlock the mysteries of her subconscious?

Yes. Yes he can. It just takes a long time getting there. Hitchcock wanted a vehicle to reintroduce Grace Kelly - now Princess Grace of Monaco - to the cinema audience and probably thought he had another 'Vertigo' on his hands. Unfortunately, he failed on both counts. Kelly bailed on him, and despite similar themes, 'Marnie is no 'Vertigo'.

First, the good news. Tippi Hedren is massively improved as an actress in this film, although I still feel she is missing that 'star' presence. Sean Connery, hot from his own star-making Bond films, is also good, though his role doesn't demand too much from him. Even early in his career, Connery was a master at playing Connery. There are some nice Hitchcock touches - the safe-cracking scene is appropriately suspenseful, and the long pan at the dinner party to the unexpected guest at the door is impressive, despite being done before. The flashback scene towards the end is also well-shot - possibly with filters and a wide-angled lens - to give that hazy memory look, and also features Bruce Dern, whom we will meet again much later in Hitch's filmography.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much else to keep me interested. Hitchcock teases out Marnie's foibles painfully slowly, and though the denouement is well done, it isn't that surprising. None of the characters are particularly likeable or sympathetic. Does Rutland commit marital rape? It's certainly implied. But, as L.P. Hartley stated, 'the past is another country; they do things differently there.' Should I judge a 1960's film by 2018 standards? I don't know. But, it left me uncomfortable, and perhaps that's good enough for Hitch.

As I'm nearing the end of this year-long project, it saddens me that I'm probably watching the start of the decline of Hitchcock's work. There are some films of his that I know I will rewatch just for pure entertainment ('North by Northwest', 'Rear Window', to name a couple) and some I will return to in order to get a second perspective. 'Vertigo' is one of those, and I feel 'Marnie' might be another.

Like my feelings on the film, the blu-ray from the 'Materpiece Collection' was a mixed bag. Mostly the visuals were excellent, although there were some scenes that looked like a VHS tape. I didn't have any issues with the sound.
BONUS: 'The Girl' [2012]
Source: DVD

Sometimes it's best not to scrutinize the feet of our idols too closely. To date, I've watched 48 of the 52 available films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, all 19 of the TV episodes he directed, several TV interviews he gave and numerous books about him. He has been a consistent presence in my life for the past year, and I've grown to admire him greatly. He is like a jocular uncle. So watching the HBO biopic 'The Girl' is an unsettling experience.

The film condenses the making of 'The Birds' and 'Marnie' into an hour and a half, focusing on Hitchcock's increasing obsession with Tippi Hedren. Taken at face value, the film portrays Hitchcock as a sadistic, vindictive, jealous, creepy, perverted voyeur whose career would have been curtailed within a few short years if the #MeToo movement had existed back in the day. Some sympathy is thrown Hitch's way to begin with, depicting him more as a sad, pathetic figure, but then is discarded by the time 'Marnie' begins shooting.

Toby Jones plays Hitch - an uncanny soundalike, if not lookalike - as a foreboding figure, ditching all the wit and charisma that many of those who worked with him say he possessed. Sienna Miller looks nothing like Tippi Hedren, but does well as a young actress adjusting to Hollywood and the mounting realization that, like Marnie, she has been caught and trapped. Co-stars from the films are ignored - there is no Rod Taylor, no Sean Connery - as theirs are not the story the film wants to tell. This is Tippi's experience, with no rebuttal.

Hedren appears in a short bonus feature on the DVD, and so appears to be involved somewhat with the film. As far as I've been able to discover, her claims of sexual harassment still stand, and I am not inclined to dispute them. But, like the allegations against Woody Allen, I just wish I didn't know. That's not to minimize them nor to dismiss the effects on the lives of the victims. Sometimes I don't want real life to intrude into my entertainment. But as an audience member unaffected by the reality, it's easy to say - patronizingly easy, perhaps.
Week 49: 'Torn Curtain' [1966]
Source: Blu-ray

Hitchcock directs another spy thriller, with mixed results. Nuclear scientist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) defects to East Berlin to continue his research shut down by the US government. He is unwittingly followed by his loyal assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews, of all people), who slowly begins to realise that she's in a Hitchcock film and therefore nothing is as it first appears. Communist Red herrings ensue, comrade.

Fresh from promoting a new lead actress in his last two films, Hitchcock chooses (or is forced to choose) established names for his stars. Newman is all moody broodiness here, and it works, more or less. Again, I missed the tongue-in-cheek manner of Cary Grant in his similar roles for Hitchcock, but Newman is more method and it's fine. Andrews, however, is woefully miscast. She is constantly wide-eyed and innocent, with zero chemistry between her and the impossibly blue-eyed Newman. (Seriously. Note his eyes as he glares at her on the plane. They're like a wolf's.) Typecast as Mary Poppins/Maria the singing nun doesn't help, of course, but really, what were they thinking? A harder, more cynical and determined leading actress would have devoured this role.

Fortunately, the supporting characters are excellent. Wolfgang Kieling (a role that would have gone to Peter Lorre a couple of decades earlier) is wonderful as the Americanism-quoting henchman with the defective lighter. Lila Kedrova shines in otherwise unnecessarily long scenes, and Ludwig Donath plays the no-nonsense German scientist with aplomb.

There are a few nice Hitch touches - the slow chase through the museum, edited with just the sound of their footsteps; the long shot of Newman meeting the farmer; the POV shot of Andrews watching the press conference; and an overhead shot of Newman walking past cleaners have stayed with me. Otherwise, this film seems dated, unlike, say, 'North by Northwest' which seems timeless. The use of back projection and sound stages here do not work, and took me out of the film. Also, the pacing in the second half of the film is off, with bloat and fat that allowed me to nod off in places and still feel like I had missed nothing of consequence.

Still, this is not a bad film, and one that I would consider returning to some day. Not soon, perhaps, but some day.

I watched the blu-ray from the 'Masterpiece Collection'. All was good.
Week 50: 'Topaz' [1969]
Source: Blu-ray

Hitchcock returns to the Cold War well again, mixing bog-standard spy fare with some Bond-esque gadgetry. Overly long and complicated, it's a slight improvement over his previous Red Scare picture.

The defection of a Russian high official starts this caper set during the Cuban Missile Crisis. American spy John Forsythe (his second outing with Hitch, but first film*) enlists the help of his French counterpart to do... spy stuff. I don't know. It was sort of confusing. Exit, pursued by a Russian bear.

It's not clear what sort of film Hitchcock was attempting to make here. There is probably a good spy thriller hidden in 'Topaz' beneath the unnecessary bloat. But it appears he had caught some of the world's Bond fever, adding in some of the tropes audiences had come to expect. Cameras hidden in large sandwiches, razor blades secreting film, tapes rolled around typewriter ribbon, mini Geiger counters and the like... All fun but add little, if anything to the plot, but a lot to the already stretched running time. Frederick Stafford takes the Bond-type role - think George Lazenby rather than Sean Connery - and is not an effortless actor in English. In fact, none of the cast stand out, and there are a lot to choose from. Characters are introduced and then we don't see them again for great chucks of the film. I had trouble keeping up, truth be told.

There are some good-to-great things to see here - the sequence in the hotel early on is extremely well done and as suspenseful (albeit, again, to the point of being almost too long) as anything he has done before. Hitch utilizes his silent film techniques once again, with one scene played out entirely from a long shot POV, the audience completely in tune with the plot by use of the actors' pantomime. Some shots, especially overhead or extreme close-ups, are handled well, and there are fewer obvious back projections and sound stages. The location work is good, and even the use of stock footage works. Cameos of the real Fidel and Che (!) are edited in with shots of the actors, degrading their scenes slightly to make it appear more realistic.

However, ultimately the film is no great success. There are no real set pieces, no action to speak of, just more characters to remember, more exposition and a couple of twists along the way. Nothing made it feel like a Hitchcock film to me, and it almost didn't feel like a theatrical release at all, more like a TV movie. Disappointing.

The blu-ray from the 'Masterpiece Collection' was good, I thought - nice and crisp with realistic colour, overall.

Edit: *Not true. I forgot he was in 'The Trouble with Harry'. Probably because I hated  'The Trouble with Harry'.
Week 51: 'Frenzy' [1972]
Source: Blu-ray

Hitchcock's penultimate movie sees a return to his roots, with a wrongly-accused-man-on-the-run thriller filmed in London. Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), ex-soldier, lady's man, soon-to-be-fired barman and expert at being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is suspected of being the notorious Neck Tie Killer, a serial rapist & strangler of young women around London. A few close friends aid him as he attempts to elude police, but circumstantial evidence is piling up and the net is closing in. Will his friends continue to believe his protestations? Will they become the next victims? Will the innocent be sentenced and guilty go free?

There is almost a sense of whiplash from watching 'Frenzy' so soon after 'Topaz'. There may only be a difference of 3 years between them, but the new decade seems so much fresher and more modern that it hardly feels like a Hitchcock film at all. Hitch gets to play in the newly liberated sandbox, with cruder language and flashes of nudity. The violence is very much hands-on, but somehow seems less shocking than, say, 'Psycho'.

A few touches show that it truly is a Hitchcock production. Firstly, this is a darkly humorous film. Some moments are just flat-out funny, such as the scenes between the police inspector and his wife, trying out exotic culinary dishes, or the couple leaving the match-making agency. Others are more gallows humor (are the grotesque facial contortions of the female victims supposed to be intentional silly? Or the breaking of one victim's fingers to retrieve a vital clue? I couldn't tell, but the latter worked for me more than the former). 

Suspense is in play here in one key area, in the aforementioned scene where the murderer tries to hide his traces and nearly gets caught. It is classic Hitchcock in which the audience is suddenly rooting for the villain, adding again some almost slapstick humor into the mix.

In terms of direction, it is mostly low-key and low-energy (Hitchcock was in his 70s by now) but with some solid flourishes. One murder occurs off-screen whilst the camera pulls back, from the door, down the stairs, through the hallway, into the street ending on a wide shot of the oblivious comings-and-goings of passers-by. Like 'Topaz', Hitchcock uses sound and silence well here, and also later in the courtroom scene where we are only privy to snippets of the case as the door opens and closes.

Acting overall is good, utilizing many well-known (to UK viewers) character actors, and the early 70s fashions weren't so distracting as I find is often the case (although blue eye-shadow is prevalent throughout, be warned). The film feels overlong, especially in the third act, but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Not up to his 50s to early 60s thrillers, but it shows that Hitchcock could still show audiences a thing or two into the 70s.

I have nothing bad to say about the blu-ray from the 'Masterpiece Collection' - it looked crisp and clean to my eyes and sounded fine, despite the poor review.
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