Suspicion (1941)

Given its austere domestic settings and the casting of Joan Fontaine as a woman driven mad by the sinister social forces that box her in, it’d be easy to frame Suspicion as the B-picture version Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It’s certainly a narrower, cheaper follow-up to that lush psychological drama, one with more of a penchant for outright comedy, which always has a way of making a film seem lesser-than. The main difference between the two pictures is that Hitchcock is far less interested in Fontaine’s character’s inner psyche here than he is in Rebecca. Suspicion is more explorative of a masculine sensibility, particularly in the cad-like villainy of an absolute scoundrel played by Cary Grant, who torments Fontaine throughout the picture. This is a film about the sinister combination of masculine charm & traditional handsomeness, to the point where if it were released in the 2010s instead of the 1940s it would have almost certainly been framed as a condemnation of the dreaded Toxic Masculinity. It also surely would’ve gotten more flack for how its Studio-sabotaged ending failed to fully condemn that weaponized machismo with any true conviction.

Fontaine stars as a Provincial daughter of immense wealth who’s staring down a potential life of spinsterdom, alone with her overprotective parents & mountainous piles of books. She’s taken aback, then, when a handsome playboy played by Grant actively courts her for marriage, when he could just as easily pursue much more worldly, glamorous women from the nearby metropolis of London. It quickly becomes clear that Fontaine has been singled out by Grant because she’s an easy mark, willing to overlook his glaringly obvious character flaws because he’s a handsome charmer. When Grant becomes frustrated that his new cash-cow wife’s inheritance money from her wealthy family isn’t pouring in quickly enough to bankroll his outrageous spending & gambling habits, things turn sinister. Characters who could bring money into the home through their last wills & testaments conveniently start dropping off like flies, and Fontaine fears her demise may be next thanks to her robust life insurance policy. Much of the film is dedicated to generating paranoia through the eyes of Fontaine’s increasingly suspicious protagonist as she attempts to parse out exactly who or what she has married – an overgrown man-child, a handsome grifter, a coldly calculating killer? Unfortunately, the studio behind the picture chickened out and forced Hitchcock to choose the least interesting answer to this question possible, but the director does a great job of holding onto the suspense of her suspicions for as long as they’ll allow him to.

Suspicion works best as a character study of an absolute scoundrel, especially since much of the film is dedicated to sussing out exactly how sinister Grant’s handsome-devil playboy antagonist truly is. So many of his character traits from frame one are the tell-tale signs of a toxic macho bully we’ve all come to recognize as the worst aspects of traditional masculinity. Instead of sincerely relating to Fontaine’s bookish Provincial nerd, he nefariously makes a point to seduce her, like a mid-2000s pick-up artist. He negs her with the off-putting pet name “monkey-face,” repeatedly violates her personal boundaries when she tells him “No,” and infantilizes her reactions he she is legitimately upset with his lies & selfish deeds. And because he’s a handsome charmer who people find pleasant to be around, they’ll excuse even the most roguish offenses of his behavior. Characters will wave off his faults by describing him as “a baby” or explaining, “You mustn’t mind Johnny when he cuts up. That’s what makes him Johnny!” When someone asks early on, “Isn’t Johnny terrible?,” it’s meant as a compliment to his cheeky devilry, but as his list of faults accumulate it retroactively plays almost as a warning. Johnny is terrible; in fact, he’s not much more than an amalgamation of the modern man’s worst behavior. Once he starts reading pulpy crime novels as if they were instruction manuals, the situation only worsens, but he was already a danger to everyone around him from the start – especially to women.

The only thing that hinders Suspicion from being a convincing screed on the dangers of toxic masculinity is its bungled conclusion, which was reportedly altered by RKO Pictures to preserve Cary Grant’s likeability with audiences by making the character’s guilt improbable (although not entirely absolved). The good news is that there are plenty of other places to find this exact story of male entitlement run wild in other works, at the very least in the novel this film was adapted from and its spiritual descendent in Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (which has also seen several big-screen adaptations). There’s also plenty of places to see Hitchcock’s cheeky devilry as an auteur uninhibited by studio influence, partly due to the success of more stately pictures like Rebecca. What you don’t see as often is Cary Grant’s excellence as a dangerous cad who’s too handsome & too charming to fully resist – likely to your own peril. No matter how much the studio attempted to neutralize his performance of toxic bravado, the damning display of weaponized charm & sinister entitlement still shines through, and Suspicion is most worthwhile as a vehicle for his performance of a truly dastardly character who represents the worst societal ills of his gender.

-Brandon Ledet

Frenzy (1972)

Although I do attend The Prytania’s Sunday morning Classic Movies series far more often than I used to, I’m not exactly religious about it. If my schedule is convenient enough and the Old Hollywood classic on the bill is halfway intriguing, I’m likely to go, but my attendance is not a guaranteed weekly occurrence. (If the demographics of the few patrons who do attend every week are any indication, that won’t be a part of my regular routine for another thirty years or so). There is one major exception, though; if The Prytania is screening a Hitchcock film I’ve never seen before, I consider it mandatory appointment viewing. This started when the Classic Movies’ iconic host Rene Brunet Jr. would bring an unbridled enthusiasm to the Hitchcock pictures that he reserved for few others, but it’s a tradition that’s continued now years since Mr. Rene’s sadly passed away. (I still get teary-eyed at his pre-recorded intros to the Sunday screenings). Of course, an allegiance to Rene Brunet’s memory isn’t the only thing that keeps me coming back for every Hitchcock picture, from stone-cold classics like Strangers on a Train to forgotten frivolities like Saboteur. I’m also in attendance for the Hitchcock classics because they always deliver. I’ve yet to blindly go into an Alfred Hitchcock film on the big screen and leave disappointed; each consecutive screening has been a delight so far, whether in surprise of a smaller flick that doesn’t get much attention or in a decades-late affirmation of something I’ve already known to be a classic long before I saw it for myself. That very nearly changed for me with The Prytania’s recent screening of Hitchcock’s late-career serial killer thriller Frenzy, a film that’s just as punishingly nasty in spirit as it is impressive technical craft.

The very first murder scene in Frenzy is so grotesquely sleazy that I almost soured on the movie entirely. At the very least, I did not blame the young couple who quietly walked out of the screening after that brutal, misogynist display, as it was nothing like what we have been primed to expect from the Hitchcock classics that regularly screen in that venue. Frenzy is a thriller about a man who’s wrongly accused of serially strangling women to death all over London with his neckties, then dumping their bodies to be discovered by police & press. There’s no glaring narrative deviation in that premise from Hitchcock’s usual schtick, as it’s common that we know who the true killer is in these thrillers upfront and all the mystery & suspense is packaged in watching a wrongly accused man prove his innocence. The major deviation here, then, is a severity in tone. The first murder committed onscreen is a lengthy, unblinking rape & strangling shot in sweaty closeups that drag on for a hideous eternity. It’s a break in form from Hiscock’s classic mode, where he was restrained in what Hays Code-type censorship would allow him to get away with onscreen, to explore a much crasser sensibility befitting 1970s grindhouse exploitation like I Spit on Your Grave, I Drink Your Blood, or Last House on the Left. It’s arguable that this distasteful effect was purposeful & self-aware, since the subsequent murders in the film read more like a return to form in contrast – with Hitchcock pulling away from the violent & sexual brutality of the kills instead of pushing in to gawk at it. If the point was to demonstrate how much better 1950s restraint & cleverness in obscuration are in depicting onscreen violence than the 1970s free-for-all of uninhibited sleaze & cruelty, it’s severely undercut by just how much of a sour taste that first kill scene leaves to linger over the rest of the picture. Hitchcock may move on to finish his point, but the audience struggles to move past the echo of his openings statement.

Part of the reason it’s difficult to fully buy into the tonal shift of the softened violence after that opening kill is that Frenzy is morally grotesque in so many other ways. Our wrongly accused man may not be a murderer or a serial rapist, but he’s a grotesquely macho piece of shit that the movie too easily lets off the hook anyway. He’s the same womanizing, alcoholic anti-hero we’ve been asked to sympathize with in far too many machismo fantasies over the years (including in a John Wayne pic titled Brannigan that oddly resembles this one), a total menace in the lives of the women who are unfortunate enough to know him. When he asks his current girlfriend/coworker “Do I look like a sex-murderer to you?” it’s frustrating that her answer isn’t a simple, resounding “Yes,” because he totally does. The same parallels Hitchcock usually draws between his own voyeurism as a director and the violent perversions of his fictional killers continues here, but the unrestrained frankness of the dialogue makes that connection more distasteful than intriguing. The men of London regularly joke about the rapes with offhand bon mots about how “Women like to struggle,” as well as playing armchair psychologist with the killer-at-large’s necktie strangling kink. Hitchcock’s unconscious id as a violent, voyeuristic pervert is still interesting here, but listening to characters babble about how “criminal, sexual psychopaths […] hate women and are mostly impotent” only continues the moral unease of that opening, hideous murder scene long after it’s over. In terms of the explicit brutality of his onscreen violence, Hitchcock may revert to his old ways after the first kill’s brief indulgence in 70s sleaze, but there are plenty of other, unconscious factors that leave us stuck in that initial shock: a scumbag protagonist, a continued leering at naked breasts (whether or not they’re attached to corpses), a general disinterest in the inner lives of women outside their roles as victims, an equating of kink to rape, etc.

All of this is not to say that Frenzy is meritless, or even minor. Most of the film’s set pieces are just as cleverly genius as Hitchcock ever was in his prime, especially a central one set the back of a potato truck and a backwards tracking shot that pulls away from the second murder. It’s also a joy to watch the legendary director export this artistry from traditional sound stages to the crowded streets of London, as most of the film is shot on location. I also always have respect for auteurs who go down swinging in their later years, concluding their careers on angry screeds of pure, uninhibited id. It’s just that the general pall of 70s sleaze mutes a lot of Unkie Hitch’s usual charm. It’s a stomach-turning level of violent misogyny I usually brace myself for when approaching 1970s genre cinema blind but didn’t think to in this particular case because of my past, pleasant experiences watching Hitchcock classics at The Prytania. I have to wonder, if Rene Brunet were still around to host the series himself, would he have selected or approved of it? I have my doubts.

-Brandon Ledet

Saboteur (1942)

If there’s anything I’ve learned from regularly attending the Classic Movies series at the historic Prytania Theatre on Sundays, it’s that even the “lesser” Hitchcock titles are not to be missed. After falling in love with the Marlene Dietrich sultriness of Stage Fright & the gorgeous Technicolor sex humor of To Catch a Thief, any & all Hitchcock titles have become appointment viewing — whether or not they match the iconic prestige of films like Psycho, Rear Window, or Strangers on a Train. The Prytania’s latest Hitchcock selection, Saboteur, was no exception to the rule. At first glance, Saboteur appears to be a noir thriller B-picture that’s only distinguishing detail is a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker (who did a punch-up treatment on its dialogue). Only Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the “directed by” credit vouches for the film being anything more than that, but his is a name that consistently delivers. Even as much credit as Hitchcock gets for elevating genre filmmaking to the level of fine art, I’m beginning to question whether I’ve still been taking him for granted as one of the greatest directors of all time. He’s starting to cross the line from widely-praised cinematic icon to beloved personal favorite; the only question is why it took me so many years & just a few screenings of his “lesser” titles for me to get there.

In Saboteur, a couple of Air Force do-gooders attempt to put out a fire started by a foreign subversive at their base, and are punished for their heroism. One soldier dies in the fire, while the other is framed for the act of terror that killed his best friend & put national security at risk. What follows is a twisty, suspenseful mystery of grimy noir aesthetics & deep political intrigue as the surviving soldier travels the country in an attempt to thwart the terrorist syndicate who framed him and to clear his own name. At least that’s what’s promised on the tin. Instead, Hitchcock mostly delivers a weirdly patriotic road trip comedy about a hitch-hiker on the lam and the various weirdos who shelter him until he’s free of police scrutiny. Saboteur operates with a peculiar, admirable form of patriotism that loves America, but hates cops (as is right & proper). As our hero in peril finds comrades in billboard advertisement models, the disabled, working class truck drivers, and circus freaks while traveling by thumb across the country, Saboteur establishes a beautifully, radically inclusive definition of who & what is America. The enemies of that vision, by contrast, are wealthy pontificators who would sell the country to literal Nazis just to make another buck and ineffectual, brutish police officers who can’t determine the rightful target when enforcing the law. The crime thriller element promised in Saboteur‘s advertising is mostly just an excuse for this off-kilter version of war-time patriotism, one that course-corrects patriotism’s usual nastiness with a sense of humor & empathy the audience is not at all primed to expect.

Of course, Saboteur‘s surprises in tonal & narrative trajectory can only carry the film so far; they would amount to very little if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s visual craft & prankish spirit, both of which are on full display here despite this film’s modest budget & bevy of screenwriters. When crafting a noir thriller in the earliest stretch, the director casts sharply defined shadows of dangerous figures against stark white walls. When the inciting fire breaks out it’s announced with a thick black smoke projected against the same stark background, creeping into the frame with menacing intent. Incredible stunts & sound stage set pieces give the illusion of men crumbling in fires, jumping from bridges into wild rivers, and hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the accused’s hitch-hiking trip across the country is broadly informed with cheeky humor & outlandish character work, Hitchcock builds genuine tension in the feeling that he is trapped and will be caught at any second. Saboteur starts in the contained, dingy menace of a Poverty Row noir, but expands to deliver everything you could want to see on the big screen: comedy, romance, adventure, visual spectacle, shocks of terror, etc. You can feel Hitchcock straining behind the camera to elevate the material to match his own meticulous standard. In that way, it’s almost easier to see his merits as a director in these “lesser” works than in his better-funded, better-respected masterworks where everything is arranged in its proper place & tone.

I’m not sure that I would call Saboteur “essential viewing” for everyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock. For all of its charmingly skewed patriotism & admirably crafted spectacle, the film is still somewhat hampered by a dull lead performer (Robert Cummings) and an unsatisfactorily abrupt ending that prevent it from being Great Cinema. However, the way the film gradually reveals itself to be a wild, playfully cruel road trip comedy & popcorn movie after initially coming across as just another cheap-o noir truly feels like watching Hitchocck getting away with something, like he’s pulling a fast one on his producers. The dangerous thing about Saboteur is that it suggests that all Hitchcock titles might be essential viewing, that even his least-respected, lowest-profile works are not to be missed – especially if you have convenient access to seeing them on the big screen.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Double (1984)

What if Vertigo wasn’t about vertigo, but was instead about claustrophobia? It feels like this is the catalyzing question that went through Brian De Palma’s mind when he first came up with the idea for 1984’s Body Double, a risque homage to one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest works (there’s also a little bit of Rear Window thrown in there just for good measure). In place of Jimmy Stewart’s Detective “Scottie” Ferguson, we instead meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) on one of the worst days of his life: after freezing up in claustrophobic terror on the set of the low-rent vampire flick in which he’s starring, Scully is sent home early, where he finds his girlfriend in the throes of passion with another man – she doesn’t even have the decency to stop. After running into friend-of-a-friend Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) a couple of different times at auditions and being rescued by him from an apparently emotionally abusive acting exercise in which he revisits the memory of being trapped behind a freezer during hide-and-seek as a child, Jake takes Sam up on the offer to house sit for him while he is out of town performing in a play. Sam takes Jake back to the home in question, the famous Chemosphere (aka Troy McClure’s house) and shows him the amenities: a fully stocked bar, rotating bed, and a telescope perfectly placed to watch the nightly erotic dance of a beautiful neighbor.

On his second night of housesitting, Jake witnesses a creepy-looking older man also watching the woman; the following day, he realizes that the other man is following her, so he pursues them both to a mall, where he overhears the neighbor planning to meet someone at a seaside hotel. He pursues her there, too, where the creep also lurks before snatching her purse. Jake chases him down, but is unable to follow him more than a few feet into a tunnel before his claustrophobia renders him immobile. The woman introduces herself as Gloria (Deborah Shelton), and the two share a passionate kiss after she confesses that she is unhappy in her marriage. Unfortunately, Jake’s new (and creepy) romance is over before it can truly begin, as he sees the villainous peeper burgling her home and arrives too late to save Gloria. The police are suspicious, but there are other witnesses, and though they are all rightfully disgusted by Jake’s voyeurism, he is released. Jake finds himself in a slump, until he sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) performing a very familiar dance on late night television. So begins a journey of mistaken identity and duplicitous disguises that traces a path across LA, from reservoirs to the seedy (but also maybe kind of fun?) underbelly of the porn industry.

There are a lot of scenes in Body Double that draw on the visuals from Vertigo, and which highlight the Hitchcockian influence on this sleazy thriller. When Jake enters the tunnel and is paralyzed by his claustrophobia, the visual distortion that communicates his distress echoes the iconic top-down shot of Jimmy Stewart attempting to climb stairs. There’s also a shot of the famous tower at Fisherman’s Wharf, which calls to mind distant shots of the tower that becomes the site of the older film’s climactic showdown. Jake’s voyeurism reminds one of Jimmy Stewart’s other most famous role in a Hitchcock film; Rear Window presents Jeff’s peeping as largely harmless and ultimately beneficial to the resolution of a murder investigation. Body Double follows some of those same story beats, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the real world, such surveillance is deviant and creepy, happy ending or no. And then, of course, there’s the inclusion of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (and Marnie, but let’s not talk about that). It’s admirably clever that De Palma, like John Carpenter before him when he cast Psycho star Vivien Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, creates a rhetorical space in which he identifies himself as one of the next filmmaking generation’s Hitchcock successors by using the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s actresses. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Griffith is fantastic in this role, bringing vivaciousness and an unusual brand of smarts to what could otherwise have been a very of-the-era “dumb blonde” role. While Wasson’s Jake is an interesting character study, a seemingly ordinary man who easily falls into depravity, Griffith’s Holly is a porn star with a sense of humor and who won’t put up with any creeps giving her a hard time. She also knows her limits and is up front about them from the beginning: “I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.” In contrast, Jake is a man who’s never thought about what his limits are, but he finds that with very little prompting, he’s perfectly willing to perv on a strange woman long distance, stalk her around a mall, and follow her to a presumable hotel tryst. And, of course, steal underwear out of a trash can (it makes more sense in context, but only just).

The presumption that the audience will sympathize with Jake (which you do, to an extent; when this film was introduced as part of this summer’s Unhitched series, Wasson’s character was referred to as a “nebbishly inept weirdo”) is something that really dates this movie, but there’s another element that I don’t think De Palma could have predicted. I won’t name the actor to avoid spoiling it for you, but there’s a latex mask reveal (possibly foreshadowing De Palma’s eventual fate as the director of the first Mission Impossible film) in this movie that is completely undercut by the fact that the mask that the killer wears pretty much looks like the actor underneath does now, nearly 35 years later. The villain is also consistently referred to as “The Indian,” which is . . . not great. It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Episode #62 of The Swampflix Podcast: Psycho Sequels & Don’t Look Now (1973)

Welcome to Episode #62 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our sixty-second episode, James & Brandon discuss all four sequels to the Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho (1960). James also makes Brandon watch Nicolas Roeg’s psychological/supernatural thriller Don’t Look Now (1973) for the first time. Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

Young and Innocent (2017)

When Gus Van Sant attempted a shot-for-shot remake of the Alfred Hitchcock proto-slasher Psycho in the late-90s, he found it frustrating that recreating exact moments from the original frame by frame zapped the magic from the horror he was staging. Early on in the process of remaking Psycho, Van Sant had to abandon the shot-for-shot gimmick to allow his actors more freedom to perform and his film more room to stand on its own. It was a smart decision, as the more interesting aspects of the 1998 Psycho were where it strayed furthest from the Hitchcock original: the vibrant colors, the in-stereo Danny Elfman score, the surrealist dream imagery that invades the various kill scenes, etc. The main problem with Van Sant’s Psycho is that it didn’t deviate further from Hitchcock, that it was precious about being blasphemous to its source material. The no-budget indie Young and Innocent plays much, much looser with the Hitchcock roadmap in its own Psycho revisionism, to the point where it even transforms the original’s genre from horror/thriller to lowkey romcom & coming of age drama. Young and Innocent obviously can’t compete with the slickness of Van Sant’s production, considering the scale of its financing, but its willingness to play around with the basic components of their shared source material instead of letting them be is much more artistically admirable & worthwhile.

Although it cribs its title from an entirely different Hitchcock thriller, Young and Innocent’s debt/homage to Psycho is apparent fairly early in its first act. A teenage girl named Marion is spurned by a summertime fling, who happens to be a counselor at her Emily Dickinson writing camp. Miffed, she makes off with the camp’s debit card and takes the first available bus out of town. If you’re not already seeing the Psycho parallels while Marion listens to imagined catty criticism of her character & her poetry on this rebellious bus ride to nowhere, they should be unignorably blatant by the time she rents a motel room from a young weirdo named Norman, who makes incessant small talk about his mother & offers her dinner in his office (this time pizza delivery instead of sandwiches). The movie keeps you guessing from there, teasing the infamous shower scene & heavily implying that Norman might just be the murderer you’d expect, but allowing Marion to live far longer than she did when she did when she was played by Vivian Leigh. A lot of the same elements from the original Psycho persist even as Marion continues to be alive, including investigations from her sister & local law enforcement. Mostly, though, Young and Innocent plays like a summertime hangout film that finds awkward comedy in an unlikely romantic spark between Norman & Marion, so it’s actually not like Psycho at all.

Young and Innocent is a little stilted by its student film production values & depends heavily on audience familiarity with Hitchcock’s original film, but it plays so loosely with Psycho’s basic DNA that it generates a tense sense of mystery & dread all of its own. More clever than outright hilarious, Young and Innocent’s awkward romantic tension is endearingly cute, while still maintaining the original film’s sense of impending doom through surrealistic violence in its dream imagery and the basic vulnerability of following a runaway teen protagonist through a series of risky decisions. It’s interesting to see how much it differs from 1998’s much higher-in-profile Psycho remake, especially in terms of tone & genre, while still capturing the spirit of certain details from Hitchcock’s original more accurately. Gideon Shil’s Norman Bates stand-in, for instance, is much more convincing as a nervous weirdo than Vince Vaughn’s estimation of the same Anthony Perkins role, despite his status as a crazed killer being much more of an open-ended question. By dwelling on Marion’s vulnerability in a world full of potentially dangerous men for a much longer stretch of time, the film also feels more revelatory of Hitchcock’s original intent than the more faithful carbon copy of Van Sant’s efforts. Young and Innocent finds endearing, quirky coming-of-age humor in a classic work that should not be able to support that light of a tone, which is a very admirable distinction for a film with its undeniably meager means.

-Brandon Ledet

Stage Fright (1950)

The opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller Stage Fright begin with a theatrical “safety curtain” lifting to reveal the city of London instead of a stage. This is not only a winking foreshadowing of that safety curtain’s central role in the film’s conclusion, but also immediately opens the film to a Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” mindset, deliberately so. Stage Fright gleefully traffics in the meta commentary inherent to all movies & plays about stage actors, setting its murder mystery thriller plot in the posh world London theatre. Instead of bringing real world conflict to the artificial environments of a playhouse, however, Hitchcock brings character study stage acting to real life city streets, teasing out information on a first act murder through a series of false identities & well-formed lies. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that most of the action is confined to an actual theatre and by then that interior space just feels like an extension of the larger city that houses it. It’s a brilliant inversion of what was already well-established trope over half a century ago.

Jane Wyman (of All That Heaven Allows fame) stars as a young character actor in training who’s stuck on a puppy love crush with a boy who’s in big trouble over his actual lover, a famous actress of high society prestige played by Marlene Dietrich. Through an early flashback, we see the young fugitive fleeing a murder charge for the death of Dietrich’s wealthy husband, clutching a bloody dress that would link his lover to the crime. Wyman’s aspiring young actor stashes the fugitive away at her low level smuggler’s home and decides to clear his name herself while the police hunt him down. Her smartass father (a scene-stealing Alastair Sim, who resembles a hybrid between Alec Guinness & John Lithgow) worries that using her stage acting skills to create false identities as a means to gather information is “transmuting melodrama into real life.” He jokes that she’s gathered up a plot, an “interesting” cast, and even a costume (the bloody dress), but is forgetting the real world dangers her “performance” is flirting with. He’s, of course, exactly correct. The actor’s web of lies only lead her further into danger, lust, and mystery as her real world stage play spirals out of her control and one of the great Hitchcock twists entirely disrupts the narrative she had been constructing to absolve her beloved.

Besides the film’s genuinely surprising twist, there are plenty of Hitchcock charms that help distinguish Stage Fright as a notable title among the director’s lesser works. The meta settings of an acting class and a cramped props closet leave plenty of room for Hitchcock’s usual sly, winking-at-the-audience humor. An umbrella-obscured sequence set at a rained-out garden party allows for the director’s mechanically precise craft of set piece staging to come to the forefront. He finds room to play with his usual visual trickery elsewhere as well: a character’s POV fuzzing with prescription glasses, imagined bloodstains on various dresses, a faked split diopter shot (that honestly resembles bad Photoshop in a modern context), etc. These are all minor Hitchcock pleasures, however. For all of Stage Fright‘s small scale successes in meta theatricality & Jane Wyman sleuthing, its biggest draw is the gleeful way Hitchcock shoots & highlights Marlene Dietrich. She doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as Wyman, as she must remain a mysterious figure for the film’s “All the world’s a stage” plot to work, but she still commands the film’s spotlight. Shots of Dietrich smoking under a veil or singing a lengthy Cole Porter number about how she’s too lazy to fuck are what elevates Stage Fright above meta-theatrical murder mystery to something slightly more distinct. Hitchcock did an excellent job of exploring her presence without overplaying her schtick and I’d much more readily recommend the film for someone looking for Top Shelf Dietrich instead of the director’s best. In the end, Dietrich is the star attraction her pompous character believes herself to be and the movie’s meta stage play theatrics are more or less lagniappe.

-Brandon Ledet

Rene Brunet Jr., Hitchcock, and the Prytania’s Classic Movies Series

Oddly, the only time I’ve ever written about recently deceased local legend Rene Brunet, Jr. for this site was when I saw the storied theater operator introduce Cinema Paradiso for the Prytania Theatre‘s 100 Year Anniversary two long years ago. Brunet’s family has been in the business of local cinema operation since the 1900s and, at 95 years old, Rene had owned & operated many local cinemas himself over his seven decades in the profession. Within my lifetime, his name had become synonymous with the Prytania Theatre, which he had operated since the mid 90s. The last single screen neighborhood theater still playing movies in Louisiana, the Prytania is the physical manifestation of Brunet’s love of cinema history, a passion he’d fed into the co-authored book There’s One in Your Neighborhood: The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans and, more importantly (to me), the theater’s weekly Classic Movies series. Since the Classic Movies series began almost a decade ago, Brunet had been introducing his old favorites from cinema past every Sunday & Wednesday morning he could physically make it, usually with the same kind of anecdotes he preceded that Cinema Paradiso screening with. I’ve personally become very attached to those screenings over the past few months especially, thanks to the Prytania’s partnership with the New Orleans Film Society. Given that a particular week’s selection looked to be of interest, I’d make those screenings an essential part of my weekly movie-going routine. These aren’t the 35mm prints or 4k restorations of fancier art houses around the country (although the Prytania often programs those as well). Most films that screen for the Classic Movies series aren’t even presented in their intended aspect ratio. Besides the basic thrill of seeing them big & loud with an audience, Rene Brunet, Jr.’s passion for each selection is largely what made those screenings a weekly draw and I never heard him more passionate than he was when he was talking about Hitchcock.

The last movie Brunet introduced at those Classics screenings was The Wizard of Oz, a viewing experience that completely melted my mind in its Technicolor vibrancy, despite having grown up with its eternal repetition in television broadcasts. After a couple behind-the-scenes anecdotes, Mr. Brunet sweetly asked us if there were any bad witches in the audience, admitting that he could only see good ones. He would always deliver these routines from the perch of his wheelchair at the front of the crowd. Then, as he prompted the projectionist to start the feature, he’d be wheeled to the back while reminding us off-mic, as if he’d forgotten, to join him in the lobby for conversation after the movie, where “Coffee and cake are complimentary!” I never spoke to him in the lobby myself, but there was always something adorable about watching him hold court over the older patrons in his Three Stooges necktie as I made my way into the Sunday afternoon sunshine. I’d even come to get used to, if not sadly miss, the loud wooshing sounds of his oxygen tank at the back of the theater during the pictures, which was audible no matter where you sat. In a lot of ways, The Wizard of Oz was the perfect final picture to share with Mr. Brunet. Not only does it encapsulate the Old Hollywood movie magic he attempted to promote with the Classic Movies programming, but the pre-screening music at the Prytania is often a piano rendition it “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” so that space & that film are already forever linked. I will say, though, that I had come to most closely associate the series with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. I never knew Brunet personally enough to suppose who is favorite filmmaker might have been, but I got the sense that he always treated Hitchcock screenings with a special care & enthusiasm. They were always the highlight of the Classic Movies schedule and it’s downright eerie watching the director’s work at those Sunday morning screenings in Brunet’s absence.

In particular, I’ll always owe Rene Brunet’s enthusiasm in presenting To Catch a Thief for the series, a screening he prefaced with anecdotes about Hitchcock’s hatred of eggs & where to look for that distaste in the film. To my surprise, what’s often dismissed as one of the director’s more frivolous works quickly rocketed up to one of my favorites in his catalog. Surely, the benefit of seeing that Technicolor sex comedy (which is superficially dressed up like a heist thriller) big & loud with an appreciative crowd had a large part in my enthusiasm for the work. However, I’ve been to two Hitchcock screenings since Brunet’s career-concluding presentation of The Wizard of Oz and, while I’m not sure exactly how much the effect of his absence had to do with my reaction, I just didn’t feel nearly as strongly. For the deviously taut thriller Stage Fright, I may have been worried by the video introduction from Mr. Brunet, whose physical absence was alarming, given his age & the appearance of his health. By the time Strangers on a Train was presented, the news he had passed was weeks in the rearview, but still a difficult adjustment. This was the first time I’d ever seen Strangers on a Train, which is just as slyly funny & visually impressive as To Catch a Thief, but didn’t hit me with the same intensity. Several sequences within the film undeniably felt like Best of All Time cinema landmarks: the Love Tunnel stalking, the Life or Death tennis match, the spectacle of the out-of-control carousel crash, etc. I just wasn’t as enraptured with it as I was with To Catch a Thief‘s much cheaper sex jokes & Technicolor pleasures. That likely has a lot to do with my generally trashy tastes and the expectation levels set by the film’s respective reputations, but I’m sure the environment I saw them in didn’t help Strangers much either. With To Catch a Thief I saw a local legend cheerfully introduce a little-loved work from what appeared to be one of his favorite artists. With Strangers on a Train I had to reflect on the reality that I’d never share that experience with Mr. Brunet again, which is a sad enough circumstance to sour any theater-going experience. He wasn’t there to hold my hand through another long-overdue Hitchcock initiation and the absence of his enthusiasm was immediately felt.

While it is emotionally distressing that Rene Brunet, Jr.’s physical presence will no longer be a part of the Prytania or its Classic Movies series, his influence on that New Orleans culture cornerstone is promised to continue in perpetuity. His son Robert Brunet continues on as a co-operator for the theater as it transitions into its second century serving the neighborhood. His portrait that hangs in the lobby has been updated with a plaque commemorating his passing. Even more endearing is the decision to have Rene continue to introduce the Classic Movies series even though he can’t be there to offer complimentary coffee, cake, and conversation after the credits roll. When I saw Strangers on a Train, the feature was preceded with a short video clip of Mr. Brunet speaking to the audience from a seat within the theater, enthusiastically addressing us with a “Welcome to the big screen!” They even retitled the series Rene Brunet’s Classic Movie of the Week, a tweak I pray that sticks indefinitely. Even beyond those weekly screenings and that small brick building on Prytania Street, Brunet’s presence is something that’s going to forever linger in New Orleans film culture. Every time I see a Hitchcock classic for the first time I’m going to hear his excited voice encouraging me to take notice of the tiny details and backstage lore. Every time I attend a local film fest or indie cinema I’ll have to appreciatively keep in mind the loving care he put into keeping that culture alive, especially in a time when it felt like AMC was going to eat this city alive. Rene Brunet, Jr. is already dearly missed, but his near century-long enthusiasm for the local cinema experience means he’ll always be a part of how people in this city watch & appreciate movies, especially the classics.

-Brandon Ledet

To Catch a Thief (1955)

I recently caught To Catch a Thief at The Prytania, New Orleans’s oldest operating cinema. It was an early morning matinee where the theater’s ancient, adorable operator introduced the Hitchcock thriller with half-remembered stories about cameos & eggs and promises of complimentary coffee & cake after the screening. I knew nothing of the picture before I arrived to the theater except its stars, Cary Grant & Grace Kelly, as advertised on the poster. Before Rene Brunet’s introductory story about Hitchcock’s hatred of eggs, I didn’t even know who directed it. What followed was a Technicolor dream of gorgeous visual indulgences in simple pleasures like flowers & fireworks, beautiful people exploring even more beautiful locales, and a nonstop assault of witty, but juvenile sex jokes. I’ve certainly been more impressed with Hitchcock as a visual craftsman & a generator of suspense in more prestigious pictures like Psycho or Rear Window, but I’ve had never had more fun watching one of his films as an all-around entertainment experience. It was the exact exhilarating feeling of seeing high art visual craft married with the genre film pleasures of a trashy heist plot people have been gushing over Baby Driver for (even though I didn’t quite enjoy that Edgar Wright work myself). That’s why it deeply saddened me after the screening to learn that To Catch a Thief is widely considered to be a “lesser Hitchcock” and a dismissible, frivolous picture.

Cary Grant starts as a retired jewel thief known in the papers as The Cat, thanks to the gymnastic stealth needed to pull off his heists. Hanging up his cat burglar’s costume in the years since World War II, The Cat is attempting to live a quiet life outside of crime. He’s not quite a Robin Hood figure; he kept all the money he stole before the war. He did make a point only to steal from “those who wouldn’t go hungry,” though, which does have a sort of nobility to it. His peaceful retirement is interrupted when a copycat thief begins to stage crimes that fit his exact M.O., raising police suspicion that The Cat is back on the prowl. Grant’s handsome, ex-criminal protagonist decides to catch the new burglar himself (recalling OJ Simpson’s mission to “find the real killer”) with the help of an insurance agent who might be able to predict the next victim based on his clients’ claimed jewelry. This leads him to a Cannes Beach Club where he’s shamelessly flirted with by a young debutante played by Grace Kelly, whose mother’s jewels are in imminent danger of being stolen. The mystery of who the copycat jewel thief is doesn’t feel as complex or as suspenseful as the central mystery of most Hitchcock films, as the answer is fairly obvious earlier than it likely should be. This doesn’t matter in the slightest. The lush colors, playful mood, and overly stylized production value of To Catch a Thief make for a film so fun it feels like an outright comedy while still holding claim to some of the most striking imagery Hitchcock ever produced.

To Catch a Thief plays with the same lush production design & Technicolor lighting that made Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s pictures” like All That Heaven Allows feel like high art despite their shameless indulgence in melodrama. A foot chase through a flower market, a swim on a French beach, or a picnic on the edge of a cliff, all in proudly-boasted “VistaVision”: you can tell this was an expensive production, made with Major Studio pride. What makes it such a delight, however, is that Hitchcock perverted those Sirk sensibilities with the tawdry jokes about boobs & Grace Kelly’s virginity. This clash is most glorious in a hotel room scene where Kelly’s young flirt is seducing Grant’s retired criminal, only for their attraction to be consummated with a Technicolor fireworks display. It’s scene that encapsulates everything To Catch a Thief is in its best moments: funny, sexy, gorgeous, and crude. A more sophisticated palette might better appreciate the tightly controlled tension of a Rear Window, but give my raccoonish taste buds the pretty colors and cheeky sex jokes of To Catch a Thief any day. Hitchcock’s perverted humor usually lurks in the corners of his best respected thrillers, but here it runs wild, swimming in its skivvies on gorgeous French beaches and sneaking across rooftops looking for hearts & jewels to steal through bedroom windows. It breaks my heart to hear that kind of immediate pleasure isn’t better respected.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s no tact or taste to To Catch a Thief’s humor. An early montage of a black cat sneaking across roofs to steal jewels, a literal cat burglar, feels a lot like the director’s peak form as a humorous craftsman. There’s also an early chase scene involving several fake-outs that’s almost Friedkin-esque in its clear staging of cat & mouse police pressure. Going in expecting the typical meticulous hand the director brings to his work might be a mistake, however. To Catch a Thief seems to be entirely a result of Hitchcock letting loose, having fun with the romantic & mysterious set-ups of his easygoing narrative. Even the double meaning of the film’s title (as both Kelly & Grant are attempting to catch a thief of their own) suggests that the whole thing is a kind of off-hand joke. Watching a world-class craftsman afford that joke the visual care & lusty passion that should likely be reserved for a more refined work makes it feel like jokey genre fodder elevated to the heights of fine art. If the world has room in its heart to praise the much lesser Baby Driver for achieving that exact kind of heist film elevation, I’d hope there’d also be room for an undervalued Hitchcock title to retroactively receive that same treatment.

-Brandon Ledet

The Sick, Sad Art of the Rear Window Romcom

One of the more immediately bizarre aspects of April’s Movie of the Month, the deliriously silly Mark Waters romcom Head Over Heels, is that it’s a low-key reimagining of the Alfred Hitchcock classic Rear Window. Although Rear Window does have its own sly, delicate sense of humor operating under its murder mystery thriller beats, it’s hardly the light-hearted romantic romp Waters later fused with Zoolander-style fashion world parody in Head Over Heels. A blood pressure-raising thriller plot about a shameless voyeur spying on his neighbors​ through his apartment window and possibly witnessing a murder isn’t the first place you’d expect to find inspiration for a by the books romantic comedy, but Waters amplified & broadened the once subtle humor of the Hitchcock classic to do just that. The strangest thing about that choice is that he wasn’t even the first filmmaker to get there. Rear Window had been hammered into the shape of a generic romcom before, one that was even more faithful to its almighty genre tropes.

When describing Head Over Heels in our initial conversation about the film, Boomer explained, “It’s a nineties holdover of a specific kind of romantic comedy that paid for Meg Ryan’s house and every meal she will eat for the rest of her life.” I’m not sure he knew exactly how accurate he was when he wrote that. The 1997 Meg Ryan romcom Addicted to Love shares far more with Head Over Heels’s basic DNA than I could have imagined any film could, considering how uniquely ridiculous the Mark Waters picture feels as a novelty. Not only does Addicted to Love feature Ryan, the Queen of the 90s Romcom, getting wrapped up in a Rear Window-inspired plot, but the film itself is named after a Robert Palmer song, while Head Over Heels was titled after a track by The Go Go’s. As Boomer also pointed out in that initial Head Over Heels conversation, the art of “romantic films taking their titles from classic love songs and contemporary pop music” has somewhat died off since Meg Ryan’s heyday, so it’s amusing to me that both of these Rear Window romcoms would be titled that way.

It’s worth noting that, unlike with Head Over Heels, the Addicted to Love version of the Rear Window romcom involves no investigation of a possible murder. Matthew Broderick stars as a small town yokel/brilliant astronomer whose heart is broken when the love of his life (Kelly Preston) moves to NYC and falls for another man. Broderick, in his devastated state, sets up shop in the abandoned warehouse across the street from this couple and becomes a full time voyeur, spying on their relationship through the window, waiting for an opportunity to win back his love. One night, he witnesses a break-in and the masked criminal in the apartment catches him spying. After scarily barging into his hidey-hole, they’re quickly revealed to be a no nonsense, biker chick Meg Ryan, who is seeking to exact revenge on the ex-fiancee that just happens to be Broderick’s old love’s new beau. Through various tools of the astronomy trade, the miserable pair of vengeful saps start to spy on their ex-lovers as a team, occasionally venturing past simple voyeurism into revenge-in-action. And, wouldn’t you know it, the more time they spend together the less they care about what their exes are up to. It’s a match made in miserable wretch Heaven.

The theme of voyeurism and the inability to act that runs through Rear Window makes it just about as odd of a choice for romcom inspiration as its central threat of violence. Head Over Heels dives into the spiritual darkness of this premise head first, not only keeping the witnessed murder aspect of Rear Window as a central part of its romcom plot, but also dragging its poor protagonist and her supermodel roomates through a long line of degrading encounters with adulterous lovers, horny dogs, child molesters, and human feces. I dare say that in its own moments of pitch black despair Addicted to Love manages to get even darker than that Mark Waters work, however. Matthew Broderick’s brokenhearted voyeur stops shaving and takes to chugging hard liquor. While spying on his ex, he meticulously tracks her daily routines on astronomy style charts, even documenting her smiles based on frequency and enthusiasm. Meg Ryan also gets dragged down to this desperately sad level once she finds herself squatting with Broderick in his spy nest/shit hole, at one point crawling across its unswept floorboards, pawing at cockroaches to use in a prank at her ex’s expense. She also uses Broderick’s pain against him, exclaiming, “The only way that girl is going to come back to you is if a blast of semen catapults her across the street and through the window,” and going on to describe the enormity of her ex’s dick to be “like Godzilla’s tail; he can take Tokyo down with that thing,” (which is especially funny now, given Broderick’s eventual run-in with Godzilla, tail and all). And if all that weren’t enough pain & degradation already, the big dick Cassandra from across the street eventually goes on an alpha male tirade where he threatens Broderick with the line, “I will rip out your eyes and rape your skull. Excuse my French.” This is a romcom, though, don’t forget. Ryan and Broderick do eventually become romantically linked, even if their first night together involves them getting black out drunk and dressing up like each other’s exes. Yikes.

Objectively speaking, Head Over Heels is a far better film than Addicted to Love, which is fine, but not nearly as memorable or as genuinely funny. Considered strictly on its merits as a romcom adaptation of Rear Window, however, Addicted to Love is the bigger success. Head Over Heels maintains the witnessed murder aspect of the Hitchcock classic, but branches off from there to cover everything from fashion world fantasy to ZAZ-style parody humor to Farrelly Brothers gross-outs to action comedy beats surrounding a diamond heist. Addicted to Love is much more faithful to the perverse, depressive aspects of voyeurism that humored Hitchcock in Rear Window and had a sort of novelty to the way it sticks more closely to that seminal work. It even finds a striking visual palette in its voyeurism-aiding astronomy equipment. Broderick builds a camera obscura to more easily spy on his & Ryan’s exes in his squat, and the two often watch that machine’s projection as if it were a 24 hour soap opera. All of the telescopes, flow charts, and depressive bouts of alcoholism in the world couldn’t save the picture from being just one of many titles in a long line of Meg Ryan romcoms, though. It’s a fairly generic example of a Meg Ryan Picture, except for its novelty as a Rear Window-inspired romcom, but the basic absurdity of that combination can’t be overlooked and the fact that there are at least two movies that fit that description is highly amusing to me.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander, and this piece exploring the similarities in the premise and humor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

-Brandon Ledet