Tag: mystery

Movie Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

lady vanishes
Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

Ok, here’s the final in my little Hitchcock trifecta, though I might catch one or two more in September. The Lady Vanishes has been on my to-see list for a while, as I’ve always heard it’s one of his best. The film begins in a small, fictional European country where visitors are currently stranded at a mountain inn during a snowstorm. When the weather clears, American socialite Iris (Margaret Henderson) hits her head on the way to the train, but a cheerful British nanny named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) takes care of her as their journey begins. After taking a nap, Iris wakes up to find Miss Froy gone, and none of the other passengers seem to have any memory of her existence- some assume the young woman is hallucinating due to her bump on the head. Convinced Miss Froy is both real and in trouble, Iris enlists the aid of raffish British musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) to get to the bottom of things. Just what’s going on here on this MYSTERY TRAIN?!

Hitchcock again delights with a thriller primarily relegated to one location, here a passenger train moving fast through unfamiliar (and totally made-up) territory. Admittedly the actual plot is kind of ridiculous, with all this macguffin spy stuff that is barely explained, and while I recognized that fact immediately I was still sort of frustrated by that element of the film- like why work in this secret political relations stuff if you’re not even going to elaborate on it, at all? But really it’s just an excuse to throw these delightful characters together and see what they do in a strange and dangerous situation. The core team of Redgrave and Henderson is great, doing that sexy love-hate thing until they finally admit that they want to make out. Redgrave is eerily reminiscent of Aiden Gillen aka Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, and it kind of freaked me out how much they are the same person. Time travel? Perhaps. The real stars are gay couple Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), who are TOO ADORABLE. They just sit around talking about crickett and loving each other, and generally being too droll to handle. They, like half the cast, are so British as to be a bit of a parody.

The Lady Vanishes has a little bit of everything: excitement, romance, jokes, shootouts, mistaken identities, gaslighting, fictional foreign policies, magic, and a train! It’s fun and a little silly, but also genuinely thrilling. I loved the characters and the dialogue, though the overarching mystery is too under-developed.


Pair This Movie With: Hmm another movie with a train perhaps? Ones that come to mind include but are not limited to: The General, Transsiberian, Source Code, and Silver Streak.

Movie Review: Rear Window (1954)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

This one I’d already seen a few times, but it’s not like I’m going to pass up an opportunity to see Rear Window in a theater. I’m not that stupid. Hitchcock’s classic tale of voyeurism and friendly neighborhood murder stars Jimmy Stewart as LB Jeffries, a successful magazine photographer who’s gone stir crazy in his apartment laid up with a broken leg. He spends his days obsessively observing others in his apartment complex, all throwing their windows open in the summer heat. He begins to suspect the salesman across the courtyard (Raymond Burr) may have murdered his invalid wife, but needs to track down evidence to get the police to take action. With the help of his fashionista girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and wisecracking nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff tries to conclusively prove a murder took place in his very backyard.

Seeming to lovingly caress every frame, Hitchcock uses Rear Window as a means to explore his love of film as a visual medium. He zooms in and out, pans around slowly, moves within and beyond an extremely detailed set, and expertly plays with focus. His protagonist is a photographer, a man who makes his living viewing life through a lens, and that fact is exploited to full effect as the story progresses. Every shot is so thoughtfully composed, you could easily watch this movie on silent and still appreciate it fully. Hitchcock is careful to keep his point of view (mostly) at the same window, either originating with Jeff looking out or an anonymous observer looking into his apartment. I love the use of a single location, with enough interesting characters and settings to easily compensate for Jeff’s stationary lifestyle. There’s the ballet dancer “Miss Torso”, the melancholy Miss Lonelyhearts, the talented Songwriter, and a newlywed couple who cannot stop banging. These characters create equal parts comedy and drama as Jeff becomes more familiar with their personal lives, catching glimpses of their romantic trysts and arguments, their failures and triumphs, and their general day-to-day operations. I’ve always loved watching people out my window, and I think this movie would have been interesting to me even without the whole murder mystery thing.

But of course Rear Window is primarily a thriller, a gradually escalating nail-biter that casts doubt over who is the villain and who is the victim for a lot of its runtime. The story unfolds slowly, allowing time for Jeff, Lisa, and Stella to become fleshed out characters. They engage in witty banter, investigate their pasts, question their futures, and bond together over their deepening suspicions of the salesman across the way. Of course, Grace Kelly’s outfits are the real star here, with costume designer Edith Head having a field day. The character of Lisa works in fashion and makes herself a living model, and makes sure she appears in a stunning, impeccable outfit every time she steps into Jeff’s apartment. Hitchcock gives Kelly a soft glow in many of his shots of her, relishing the visage of yet another beautiful blonde, but luckily her character is well-written enough to break out of her Barbie doll mold. She’s intelligent and outspoken, and truly courageous and quick-thinking in dangerous situations. Jeff sits around the whole movie while she gets all the work done, a real hero!

With wit and impressive attention to detail, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes delve into the darker sides of human nature, the quiet things that happen when the blinds are closed. Even Jeff, supposedly the good guy, is no moral standard, as he easily gives into his voyeuristic urges and obsesses over something he can’t prove, slowly cutting himself off from the “sane” people around him. It’s a complex, completely rewarding film. There are a few little things that don’t really work (the flashbulb bit at the end stands out as a misfire), but overall Rear Window is a near-perfect thriller.


Pair This Movie: I think another Stewart/Hitchcock pairing would be good, and Vertigo is the one I know best. Haven’t seen Rope in a long time but I remember liking that one, plus it’s another one-location film.

Movie Review: Rebecca (1940)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

The HFA has devoted a series to Alfred Hitchcock from July through September, showing almost everything in his rather large ouevre, and I finally got myself down there to catch some screenings. So expect a few more Hitchcocks in the future. Rebecca was a priority, mainly because I knew it was the only one of his films to win best picture, and I’d heard it was really good. I kind of hated the book, but whatever, I read it in high school so I was willing to assume my teenaged reading of it was misjudged. The story follows a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets and quickly marries a wealthy, middle-aged aristocrat (Laurence Olivier) while on holiday in the south of France. When the couple returns to his British estate, the shy and nervous new bride finds herself constantly met with derision from the head housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), as well as unwanted reminders of her husband’s elegant first wife, Rebecca, who drowned a year prior.

Moody and slow-paced, Hitchcock’s Rebecca is Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic novel fully realized through majestic visuals, melodramatic interactions, and sweeping musical cues. I loved the optical tricks that create a ghostly atmosphere, including Mrs Danvers’ seemingly floating figure and the foggy landscape. A few details are changed- notably the age and background of Mrs Danvers, which allows for a definite homoerotic undertone that read as more motherly in the book. Joan Fontaine is solid casting in the lead (unnamed) role, aptly playing meek and unassuming and slowly morphing into someone more self-assured. Olivier is cold and intimidating, playing well off Fontaine’s naivete and uncertainty. George Sanders is the stand-out performance, in a small but extremely memorable role as Rebecca’s rakish cousin. He is forthright and charismatic, with a subtle hint of malice that underscores his every word. I kind of wish the movie was just about him, to be honest.

So here’s the thing: This is an impeccably crafted, thoughtfully scripted, very well-acted film, and generally very true to the source material. HOWEVER. I never actually liked this story. I don’t know, it’s been several years since I’ve read it, but Rebecca has always stuck with me. I remember predicting the big reveal pretty early on, so the mystery was boring to me. I remember disliking the lead character, who never gets a name (and thus is only identified by her marriage to Mr De Winter), who starts off as a child but in very little time is married and mistress of a major estate, and who is generally timid, useless, and whiny. I remember her relationship with Mr De Winter made me uncomfortable, since I could never get a handle on her age and was led to believe he was much older than her, and he treats her like a child most of the time. All of these things remain in the film, rightly so from an adaptational point of view, so I couldn’t really love it. Olivier being pervy around his young wife would have been enough to turn me off, honestly, I mean he literally calls her “child” and bemoans her loss of innocence when she finds out the truth about Rebecca’s death, since he loved her for her childlike wonder or something. It’s creepy.

There are so many good things about Rebecca that I must recognize Hitchcock’s mastery and the exquisite detail put into every frame. I loved the gliding camerawork and dramatic score, and the cast is superb. Seeing the unforgettable Mrs Danvers fleshed out onscreen by the eerie and intense Judith Anderson was wonderful, and her scenes with Fontaine lent the greatest tension to the whole film. But I find the protagonist and core story a bit bland, and there’s not much to be done about that.


Pair This Movie With: The moody atmosphere, pseudo-haunted British mansion, marriage mysteries, and tragic romance all put me in mind of Jane Eyre when I first read the book, and the film version retains those comparable elements. I loved the 2011 adaptation of the Brontë classic, and would pair that with Rebecca.

Movie Review: Seconds (1966)


Seen: On our projector set-up, rented from the Tufts library.

So I read Andreas’s post on Seconds over at Movie Mezzanine and was instantly curious. A psychological sci-fi thriller from the 60’s starring Rock Hudson and directed by John Frankenheimer? I believe “intriguing” was the first word that came to mind! The story begins with sweaty, middle-aged bank employee Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who on the recommendation of a friend he thought dead finds himself in the offices of the shadowy “Company” offering to release him from his humdrum life. You see, he’s got a grown daughter who’s happily married, a well-paying job, and a friendly wife who doesn’t sleep with him anymore, so OBVIOUSLY his life is pretty shitty and he needs a new one. Which is just what this business offers: new face, new name, new house, new profession, and hopefully a new outlook. Arthur wakes up as Rock Hudson and tries to cut it as a painter in California, but finds himself completely unraveling after a few months of identity crisis.

Rife with uncomfortable close-ups and fish-eye effects, the camerawork aptly conveys an alienating and unsettling feeling throughout the whole of Seconds, transforming suburban domestic spaces and innocuous men in business suits into unfamiliar monsters. It’s a dark tale with almost no likable characters (except the “Old Man” played by Will Geer, whom I kind of adored), and it’s clear early on that there can be no happy resolution. The focus is more on the journey, the realizations of the main character that his old life was worth more than he thought, and that his rash decision with the Company comes with harsh consequences. This isn’t a story about a man’s road to transformation, but rather about a man coming to terms with change he thought he wanted, but can’t actually cope with. It’s billed as a horror movie and I guess its concepts and trippy visuals could make that an appropriate designation, I just found it more of a twisted character study of the privileged white “Everyman” going through a warped mid-life crisis.

Seconds is strange and fascinating, complete with an unexpected surrealistic drug sequence and strong performance from Rock Hudson (oddly enough this is the first movie I’ve seen him in). It’s eye-catching and imaginative without being sensationalistic, and works as both a criticism of and compassionate insight into the type of man it takes as its focus. Really it’s like an extended Twilight Zone episode, which is cool. It’s the kind of movie I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of before, as it seems easy enough to fit it in with other great forward-thinking psychological thrillers of any decade. It’s the kind of movie I’m surprised hasn’t been remade yet, but now that I’ve said it I’m sure it’ll happen.


Pair This Movie With: Thematically it reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I haven’t seen in quite a while I’m realizing. Alternatively, some of the visuals and general feelings of anxiety and confusion made me think of Brazil.

Movie Review: Stoker (2013)


Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

This has been among my most-anticipated for 2013, because, well, I love Park Chan-wook (OBVIOUSLY) and I was curious to see how he’d work within the Hollywood system for the first time. Stoker is a grave, sensationalist tale about a quiet high school genius named India (Mia Wasikowska), who must tread carefully after her father passes away. Following the funeral, her estranged Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) immediately moves in with them and begins seducing her more-than-willing mother (Nicole Kidman). India observes her uncle cautiously, and realizes there is more to him than he has revealed. She becomes equally distrustful of and infatuated with him, and it becomes clear the two are connected by something more than just blood.

Gradually paced and masterfully shot, Stoker proves that Park’s talents certainly translate outside of South Korea. Every frame is thoughtful and precise, every detail is assuredly placed to intrigue or unsettle. The story is interesting and a bit pulpy, which I loved, riddled with incestuous and homicidal threads and unabashedly incorporating consistent sexual undertones. I could generally see where the plot was going, so the mystery elements were slightly weak, but for me it wasn’t about the mystery, it was more about the characters’ complex relationships that shifted and transformed as the film progressed. While I understood how most of the events would play out, I wasn’t sure how certain characters would react to one another, and that’s how the film remained so compelling throughout.

The performances are so, so good, especially Goode and Wasikowska. Especially Wasikowska, my god. Goode eases his way through creepy as fuck facial expressions heightened by intense stares, but she just NAILS it. I like her in general (remember how much I adored Jane Eyre?) but I’ve never seen her in a role so dark and sensuous, and it really worked. She is tense, continually poised to strike, and indeed there are a few times when she does. And it’s amazing. Her character blends sympathy and sociopathy and Wasikowska’s hardened looks and body language convey everything we need to know, while also effectively capturing the hormonal confusion and sexual fascination that is often central to teenage development. And I loved her style! (Kidman is good, too, but her role isn’t that big so I don’t have much to say about it.)



Pair This Movie With: The whole “evil uncle hanging out with his niece” thing had me thinking about Shadow of a Doubt, which I think would pair well.