Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Under Hitchcock's Direction

I received a DVD of Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO as a belated birthday gift.  Love it!  What a classic.  You know what never ceases to fascinate me?  How Hitchcock could take an actor who had a warm, wholesome image and get the actor to show the dark side of it.  VERTIGO is a perfect example.  In the 1930s, James Stewart had successfully and skillfully established an "All-American" good guy image.  Look at him in BORN TO DANCE (1936), Capra's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938) Capra's MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and the western comedy DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939).  Stewart got five nominations for Best Actor in his career.  He won for 1940's sophisticated comedy, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  If he could've hooked another Best Actor nomination, I would have put him in the running for 1958's VERTIGO.  He's so obsessed in this movie both as a cop out to solve a crime and as a man erotically obsessed with a woman who died.  Such a complex character.
VERTIGO opens and he dangles from the top of building in San Francisco.  He slipped during the police rooftop chase of a criminal.  The detective holds on, trying not to fall.  He gets vertigo.  Later, trailing a man's wife on a case, he tries not to fall -- not to fall in love with her.
 It occurred to me that a few lead stars gave some of the best performances of their film careers under Hitchcock's direction.  Cary Grant was a big screen master of comic acting.  Look at him in BRINGING UP BABY, THE AWFUL TRUTH, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, MY FAVORITE WIFE and THE BISHOP'S WIFE.  But when he died and his death was a lead story on the network news, what famous movie clip of Cary's was the first one shown?  Cary Grant in Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) as the Manhattan advertising executive being shot at by a killer in a crop duster plane.  That performance was one of Cary's best.
The same goes for Cary Grant's work as the emotionally conflicted government agent who recruits a woman to do espionage work for the U.S.  It's work for the untrained spy that will put her in a house full of Nazis.  He falls in love with her knowing that part of her work will require sharing a bed with the main Nazi.
As Devlin, the "fat-headed guy full of pain," Cary Grant was excellent in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946).  Cary Grant was nominated for two Oscars, both for dramatic performances.  He never won an Oscar.  Ingrid Bergman was a 3-time Oscar winner.  She wasn't nominated for NOTORIOUS but, man, she should have been.  What a performance and what a sexually mature, complicated, juicy role she was given to play.  Her character has sex for Uncle Sam but the men in the office issuing her espionage orders don't regard her as "a lady" because she's not a virgin.
Like Frank Capra, William Wyler, Mitchell Leisen and John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock was a director who made a film in the 1930s and then directed its remake years later.  Such was the case with Hitchcock's very successful 1956 remake of his 1934 original, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.  This is another film that starred James Stewart.  His leading lady was a woman who spoke glowingly of him in her 1970s autobiography -- Doris Day.  James Cagney, James Garner and Tony Randall were in awe of Doris Day's natural acting talent and range.  She was a singer with a band who had hit records and then was given a movie role in a 1949 Warner Bros. musical comedy.  Within five years, she was one of the studio's biggest musical comedy stars.  She sang and danced in such feel-good films as MY DREAM IS YOURS, TEA FOR TWO, ON MOONLIGHT BAY, APRIL IN PARIS and CALAMITY JANE.  Doris Day truly was a Hollywood icon for the sunny All American girl image.  Cagney did a musical with her at Warner Bros.  Later, for MGM, they starred in the gritty 1955 biopic, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME.  That film should've brought Doris Day her first Oscar nomination.  In it, she showed the dark side of the sunny girl-next-door image in this story of real-life singer Ruth Etting.  The talented, tough, ambitious and somewhat manipulative young Etting lets a hoodlum manage her career because she knows he can get her where she wants to go.  But there will be a price to pay for that.

At Warner's, having worked with her and seen her work, Cagney urged Doris not to let the studio give her acting lessons because she naturally, instinctively had the gift.  He didn't want to the studio to process her into a copy of other contract players.
In his 1956 remake of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitchcock gives us a look at a modern marriage in which the wife needs to find a new voice -- and the husband needs to shut up and hear it.  Jo, the wife, was a hit singer in the 1940s.  She gave up her career to be a successful doctor's wife in the Midwest.  They, with their little boy, are on vacation in Morocco.  The movie's title has two applications.  It applies to something a dying man tells the husband.  It also applies to the husband.  In the opening scene, the family is on a tour bus.  He does all the talking in a rather chauvinist way.  He's the know-it-all and makes his wife appear to be the supporting player instead of the leading lady.  She'd love to accept New York City offers to sing again.  He puts a damper on all that.  But we see during that bus ride that Jo is quick, alert and smart.  Where the husband is telling all his business to a foreign fellow passenger, Jo wants to know why the passenger is asking so many questions yet revealing nothing.  It's a good marriage but not without its occasional friction.  There's a space in between them.
Their son is kidnapped during the trip.  He's in danger of being killed.  A political figure is also in danger of being killed.  In order to cross borders and rescue their son, the arrogant husband will have to have to become humble and let his wife take the lead.  It's her fame as a singer that can open doors and give them access faster than his reputation as a doctor from the Midwest can.  Her voice as a singer will help locate their son.  He needs to acknowledge the intelligence and power of her voice as a wife and as an artist.  It will bring them closer to together.  This is the film that gave Doris Day the pop hit that became her theme song, "Que Será Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be").
Like Cary Grant, one of her many leading men, Doris Day was a master at screen comedy.  Her one Oscar nomination was in the Best Actress category for 1959's PILLOW TALK, the first of her romantic comedies with Rock Hudson.  To me, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH shows that the dramatic chops she displayed in LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME were no fluke. The scene that gets me every time is the one in which she has a tearful breakdown after he husband has given her a sedative in their hotel room.  He gave her the sedative because he knows she'll get hysterical when he gives her the news that their son has been kidnapped.
For a pop singer who'd never had any acting classes before Hollywood put her in the movies, that is one impressive scene she does.
I wonder if Paramount campaigned to get Doris an Oscar nomination for it.

And there was Anthony Perkins.  From Broadway, he went to movies with an All-American boy next door image.  He got one Oscar nomination -- for playing a Quaker during the Civil War in FRIENDLY PERSUASION (1956).

Then came the Norman Bates role in the 1960 Hitchcock masterpiece, PSYCHO.  No Oscar nomination for Anthony Perkins' brilliance in the role that made him internationally famous.
Hitchcock.  The Master of Suspense could really bring out the best in actors by showing another side of their screen images.

What performance in a Hitchcock film do you feel was overlooked by an Oscar nomination?

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