In a career crammed with pivotal periods, Sir Alfred Hitchcock's transition from London to Hollywood is easily one of the most revealing. Fans always salivate over the golden era of the 1950s, which started with Stage Fright and ended gloriously with North by Northwest (with Vertigo, To Catch a Thief and Rear Window in between). But really, Hitchcock was reaping the benefits of the foundation he laid at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s, which cover his move to America. He ended his days in jolly old England with works such as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) before teaming up with David O. Selznick -- a collaboration that produced the early smash Rebecca (1940) and Spellbound (1945) before one of his true masterpieces, 1946's Notorious.
The Criterion Collection has repackaged DVD releases of these films into a gift set titled Wrong Men & Notorious Women: Five Hitchcock Thrillers 1935-1946, and the resulting viewing shows a master in the making. In America, Hitchcock gained access to immense production values worthy of his elegant storytelling and technical magic. It was, as critic/historian David Thomson so eloquently put it, "like driving a Cadillac after a Morris Minor" -- nothing would ever be the same afterward.
The title of this set is a bit misleading; while all Hitchcock movies inevitably get the "thriller" tag, there's more texture than thrill going on here. You can see Hitchcock's storytelling mature seemingly with each film, and not just because of the increased budgets. Yes, there's plenty of suspense, but more importantly, by the end of the period, Hitchcock is exploring complicated notions of love, duty and his favorite theme, identity. Indeed, Notorious is not so much a thriller, or even a suspense yarn, as it is a potentially tragic love story in which two people fight to overcome their contrasting notions of duplicity and guilt to come together. Hitchcock was fascinated with several aspects of human nature, not the least of which was our wrestling with it. (Actions, as Cary Grant's Devlin says in Notorious, speak louder than words.)
Hitchcock was apparently reaching a plateau by the end of the 1930s. He'd established himself as one of England's best directors, having produced such popular works as Murder and the first The Man Who Knew Too Much. Already his themes were being established: identity, memory, guilt, fear or defiance of authority and so on. But Hitchcock was also hitting an early stride, as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes prove. My personal favorite is unquestionably The 39 Steps, which is just as breezy and witty as North by Northwest; Hitchcock's ability to contrast danger and humor, love and death were already on full display. Steps also shows Hitchcock's uncanny knack for casting; for a man whose supposed disdain of actors was legendary (if not mythic), he sure knew who fit in his roles.
In The 39 Steps, it's the love/hate bond forged by Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as Donat's fugitive "wrong man" character Richard Hannay tries to convince Carroll's abductee Pamela of his innocence (and ultimately, his love). The seeds of flight, fancy, romance and commitment, which will become manifest in North by Northwest, are already being laid.
The Lady Vanishes gets a lot more credit than it deserves, despite equally superb casting of Margaret Lockwood as fiancee Iris forced into detective work aboard a train, opposite Michael Redgrave's charming Gilbert -- again, two opposites who ultimately attract. There is plenty to be said about Hitchcock's commentary on contemporary Europe and the isolationism of the day, but there's not as much to be said for the comparatively claustrophobic cinematography and awkward climactic shootout.
Hitchcock was ready for a change of pace. He was ready for Hollywood. Unfortunately, Hollywood initially wasn't ready for him; most of the major studios didn't think the Brit could deliver on big-budget fare until David O. Selznick took a chance on him. The original plan was to have Hitchcock do a Titanic movie, but that idea eventually was dropped. (You lucky dog, James Cameron!)
Then came Daphne Du Mauerier's popular novel Rebecca, the rights to which Hitchcock had toyed with buying but couldn't afford. Selznick could and convinced Hitchcock this should be his American debut. The result was an unqualified smash success of a gothic melodrama -- the ultimate chick flick, if you will.
More importantly, Rebecca -- especially now, upon closer inspection -- showed what could happen when a maverick producer "tames" a maverick director. One of the great misconceptions about Hollywood's big-studio days is that the producers were meddling tyrants who knew only profit margins. (No, that's the producers of today.) Selznick was a story hound with an eye for casting. It was he who kept pushing Joan Fontaine as the clumsy, no-name mouse of a girl who is swept away by the brooding Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). (Hitchcock favored Margaret Sullavan.) It was Selznick who insisted on being faithful to the novel, while Hitchcock wanted to treat the book as he would anyone else's work: like clay to be molded to his whims.
Selznick also provided Hitchcock with the kind of budget he needed to make his story larger than life, and it's evident in the set design for the massive Manderley mansion. In fact, there were two Manderleys built, one a miniature as big as a barn, the other half its size and built on another stage. The place is a study in contrasts, equally grand and claustrophobic, warm and cool. Not that Selznick was dead-on all the time. His Hollywood ways steered him toward insisting that a huge billow of smoke from the burning Manderley form the letter "R." Hitchcock resisted, opting instead for a more subtle shot of flames flickering against a pillow with an embroidered "R."
So Rebecca became a collaboration, a test of wills, with the ultimate product winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Hitchcock, who never won an Oscar, lost out to director John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. It would not be the last time he'd lose to a worthy opponent.)
In Criterion's two-disc set, much attention is paid to the backstory of Rebecca, chronicling the casting challenges (complete with screen tests for everyone including Anne Baxter and Vivien Leigh), the production challenges and the use of music in the film. It's one of Criterion's better packages, including three hours of radio-show adaptations and a 22-page liner-note booklet.
Spellbound -- made five years after Rebecca and after successes such as Suspicion, Saboteur and Lifeboat -- was a wildly successful film that won six Oscar nominations and continued Gregory Peck's rise to fame. And yet, despite repeated viewings, it's difficult to see what the fuss was all about. Even Hitchcock, in his interviews with Francois Truffaut, conceded that it was "just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis." No wonder; the inspiration came from Selznick, who himself had just discovered the wonders of the practice and apparently wanted to share them, however clumsily, with the rest of the world.
Regardless, Spellbound was a showcase for Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck (who would in just a few short years mature into a much greater actor). The film also has novelty value for surrealist Salvador Dali's now-famous dream sequence. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Spellbound, though, is how much better Bergman is in the following year's Notorious. Or maybe it's just a testament to proper casting; Bergman is never quite convincing as a coldly scientific psychiatrist who falls head over heels for Peck (though at the time, every American woman did). Maybe it's listening to the dulcet tones of her Swedish accent delivering rote academic shrinkspeak.
Yet, in Notorious, she is beyond convincing as a woman with a reputation recruited by the federal government for some wartime spying on Nazi agents working in Brazil. Part of it is the simple fact that, in spite of her glamorous star status, Bergman was also a first-rate actress. Watch the quick-change of expressions she displays in an early attempt to woo Nazi collaborator Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains, never more seedy and sympathetic all at once). Her face flitters from allure to disgust to grimace to sweet smile in a matter of seconds.
Part of this is also Hitchcock's economy of scale; it's definitely one of his tightest works and simplest plots. But the themes are complex. Hitchcock, who's always unfairly been criticized for being too cold in his work, tells a love story in a way that few other directors could, and one suspects that Bergman locked in early on what he was trying to accomplish. Here we have two people who might be meeting at exactly the wrong time: Cary Grant's FBI agent Devlin is wary of women in general, but Bergman's Alicia in particular; she's known as a fast woman, and she's the daughter of a recently convicted Nazi collaborator. Plus, she's a boozer (like that would stop Cary Grant!).
As the story develops, we wind up with two people who alternately love and hate each other almost to death. How utterly human. Devlin keeps pushing Alicia into the arms of Sebastian, insisting it's part of her job but daring her to back out to prove her love to him. Alicia keeps waiting for one single word of love from Devlin but keeps drifting further away from him -- partly out of duty, but mostly out of spite. When Devlin finally comes to his senses, it's just in the nick of time, for Sebastian and his evil mother have caught on to the scam and are slowly poisoning Alicia. The only way Devlin can keep Alicia awake as he tries to sneak her out of the Rio de Janeiro mansion is by finally admitting the truth. Love is life, after all.
You can also see this at play in North by Northwest; Grant is once again playing a bit of a charming cad, who literally and figuratively must sober up to the realities of life and -- more importantly -- of love. When he sympathetically asks Eva-Marie Saint's double agent if life's been that bad and, if so, why, she softly responds, "Because of men like you." What a comeuppance.
And that couldn't happened without films as layered as Notorious. Shockingly, Hitchcock didn't even rate an Oscar nomination for this film, but history -- as Criterion once again proves -- has served him better.