Movie Review: Strangers on a Train (1951)

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STRANGERS ON A TRAIN MOVIE POSTER
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, 1951
Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker
Review by Steven Painter

SYNOPSIS:

Psychotic mother’s boy Bruno Anthony meets famous tennis professional Guy Haines on a train. Guy wants to move into a career in politics and has been dating a senator’s daughter (Ann Morton) while awaiting a divorce from his wife. Bruno wants to kill his father but knows he will be caught because he has a motive. Bruno dreams up a crazy scheme in which he and Guy exchange murders. Guy takes this as a joke, but Bruno is serious and takes things into his own hands

REVIEW:

Put Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler together and you figure you have a pretty good mystery. Replace those two with Alfred Hitchcock and you have a great suspense picture.

Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel Strangers on a Train. Her story struck something in Hitchcock, so he decided to make it. Since Hitch was more concerned with visualizes as opposed to dialogue, he brought in Raymond Chandler to write the script. Chandler was a great mystery writer, but just an okay screenwriter. Hitch didn’t like what Chandler had written so he turned the project over to Ben Hecht protégée Czeni Ormonde. Hecht was a talented screenwriter and one of Hitchcock’s favorite to work with. The changes Hitchcock and Ormonde made to Highsmith’s novel turned it into a completely different story, although the basic idea in Strangers on a Train (1951) is still the same.

The idea of exchanging murders is presented by playboy Bruno Anthony to tennis star Guy Haines when the two strangers meet on a train. Bruno appears to know everything about Guy — he is a famous tennis player who happens to be in love with a senator’s daughter. The only problem is that Guy is currently married to a woman he hates. Of course this woman, Miriam, won’t leave Guy because he brings her status and money. So Bruno proposes that the two exchange murders. Bruno would kill Miriam and Guy would kill Bruno’s tyrannical father.

Guy dismisses it as nothing when the two depart from the train after eating lunch together. Unfortunately for him, he leaves a lighter given to him by Ann Morton, the senator’s daughter, on the table. Bruno pockets the lighter and goes off looking for Miriam.

He finds her ready for a night out of on the town. She is escorted by two boys, neither of them named Guy. The trio heads to the carnival. Bruno follows closely behind. We know what it going to happen once Miriam and Bruno arrive at the carnival and Hitchcock takes delight in playing with our expectations of murder.

After Hitchcock has his fun on the carnival grounds, we are taken to a deserted island where the tunnel of love boats dock. Using the privacy of the darkness for something other than love, Bruno finds Miriam and strangles her. Of course this being Hitchcock the murder can’t be done without a touch of art. Miriam’s face is illuminated by Guy’s lighter. We then see Bruno’s arms close over Miriam’s throat. Her glasses fall and crack on the grass in homage to Eisenstein’s Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin (1925). The rest of the strangulation is witnessed on the reflection of Miriam’s glasses. The scene has been mocked and imitated many times throughout the years.

With his part of the bargain done, Bruno makes his way to Washington D.C. to see how Guy is doing. Being the sane one in this agreement, Guy has done nothing but roam around Senator Morton’s house. Upon hearing from Bruno that his wife is murdered, Guy calls him crazy and threatens to go to the police. Little does he know, but the police are already on his own trail, not Bruno’s. Being a friend of a powerful senator has its perks and the only thing the police are really able to do is shadow Guy with a private detective. This is the second shadow for Guy. The first is Bruno, who constantly follows Guy and reminds him of their bargain.

One scene sticks out in this part of the movie because it was imitated in Taxi Driver (1976). Guy has a training session for his upcoming tennis tournament. Everyone it seems who is in the crowd watching the session is following the ball. We see their heads turn left and then right. All except for Bruno. He sits with a smile on his face staring at Guy. Robert De Niro would enact the same stance during the political rally in Taxi Driver.

Patricia Hitchcock appears in this movie. She adds some of her father’s trademark dark humor as Ann Morton’s younger sister. She also happens to wear glasses. These get the attention of Bruno when he crashes a dinner party thrown by Senator Morton. He is discussing the art of murder with two old stuffy guests when he sees the glasses. His mock strangulation of one of the guests becomes the real thing as he remembers his murder of Miriam.

Bruno and Guy go back and forth about the murder agreement. Finally Bruno figures that Guy won’t make good on his part of the bargain and decides to frame him for the murder by placing his lighter at the scene of the murder. Guy gets wind of this plot, but is unable to do anything as he has been slatted to play at the tennis tournament.

Hitchcock does a great job of cutting between the intensity of Guy trying his best to finish the match as quickly as possible and the laidback posture of Bruno on the train. The suspense is ratcheted up and leads to a thrilling climax that involves an out-of-control carousel.

The movie is well worth watching for those fans of Alfred Hitchcock. It is one of the most studied and imitated of his films. Robert Walker is great as Bruno. Farley Granger comes off well, but I prefer him in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). At the very least this movie warns you to be careful when joking with strangers, because you never know who might take you literally.

 

 

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Movie Review: Rear Window (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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REAR WINDOW MOVIE POSTER
REAR WINDOW, 1954
Movie Reviews

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly
Review by Matthew Toffolo

SYNOPSIS:

The adventuresome free-lance photographer L.B (Jeff) Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) finds himself confined to a wheelchair in his tiny apartment while a broken leg mends. With only the occasional distraction of a visiting nurse and his frustrated love interest (Grace Kelly), a beautiful fashion consultant, his attention is naturally drawn to the courtyard outside his “rear window” and the occupants of the apartment buildings which surround it. Soon he is consumed by the private dramas of his neighbors lives which play themselves out before his eyes.

REVIEW:

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.” says Stella, the every day nurse who’s taking care of L.B. while he’s chair ridden with a broken leg. L.B. is a type-A personality, always looking for then next adventure. He’s now stuck in his apartment for months and needs to do something. So he takes to spying on his neighbors across the street in their apartments. And this is when he notices something suspicious. A man’s wife has suddenly disappeared.

This is a film with plots and themes that still hold true to today. In fact so true Hollywood decided to make a quasi remake of this film called DISTURBIA, a huge hit in the spring of 2007. Instead of the middle aged man spying on the city life, that film was about a teenage kid spying on the Suburban world.

If America became a race of Peeping Toms in 1954, I guess in 2007 it was still going strong. Society is all about wanting to know what others are doing as one prime example of that is the still popular Reality TV programs. It’s curiosity at its core. It’s why we watch movies, TV and listen to the radio. As we live our life, we entertain ourselves by watching and hearing stories about what others are doing.

For the Jimmy Stewart character, he needs to fill his usual quota of being entertained. So the only way he can do it with his confinement is to watch the neighbors. If it was 10 years later, he probably would of just gotten hooked on the day time Soaps. In 1954 he’s hooked on the people living in the apartment across the street from him. It’s what he needs to do to get by.

Visiting him often is Lisa, his love interest who wants him to settle down and be her man. He’s not that type of guy and that’s there conflict. She loves him but doesn’t love or understand the way he lives his life. He’s the journalist always living in a suitcase hoping from town to town wherever the story is. Even when he’s locked up in his apartment, he needs to find his story. She tries to take advantage of him being in just the one place to convince him to settle down, but he’s not interested in her as he wants to know what the neighbors are doing.

What happens is what happens in any situation where the dominant personality is around. She’s taken into his world and his obsessions and soon she also become infatuated with what happened with the neighbors wife. An the mutual adventure begins all in a room in an apartment building.

Alfred Hitchcock is a master of suspense. This time he must capture the suspense with just a man looking through windows with his binoculars. And he does it masterfully. Any up and coming filmmakers should take a look at this film and see how much excitement can be built with so little. And we’re completely involved on these people and their relationship with one another. As they spy on the neighbors, Hitchcock films it in the voyeuristic way like we’re spying on them. So as they feel guilty for spying, we the audience can’t help but feel a tad guilty too because we’re just as interested as they are and we want them to keep going.

Films made in Hollywood today can’t be as subtle and leisurely as this film is. A great example to see how movies has changed (in a good or bad way is your interpretation) is to watch this film and then watch Disturbia. The film’s plot is basically the same but the scenes are filmed to give the audience its suspense is completely different. It’s just the way it is now.

Hitchcock made Thriller/Suspense movies, but he also essentially made dramas, comedies and character studies too. You leave Rear Window knowing exactly what happened and knowing exactly who these characters were. Without revealing any of the major plot, the film ends exactly like it started. Another adventure has happened and the two leads are still faced with the same conflict. These are characters who didn’t have a life altering experience. It’s business as usual for them. Hollywood these days seems to always want to tell do or die stories where the characters will never be the same again. That’s fine, but it’s also refreshing to watch films like these where movies are reality mixed in with a lot of drama.

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Movie Review: DIAL M FOR MUDER (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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DIAL M FOR MURDER MOVIE POSTER
DIAL M FOR MURDER, 1954
Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings
Review by Steve Painter

SYNOPSIS:

An ex-tennis pro carries out a plot to murder his wife. When things go wrong, he improvises a brilliant plan B

REVIEW:

Alfred Hitchcock is known as “The Master of Suspense.” This is true when it comes to the film world. In the literary world, no one was a better suspense writer than Frederick Knott. So when the mater of literary suspense had his play optioned by the master of cinematic suspense, a quality movie was sure to be produced. It was in the form of Hitchcock’s most suspenseful picture, Dial M For Murder (1954).

Unlike in other movies adapted from literary works, Hitchcock didn’t tinker with the successful stage play Knott had written. There are a few Hitchcock touches, like stalling the climatic murder sequence by having Ray Milland’s watch stop and then having him wait to make a phone call as someone is using the phone booth. All this heightens the suspense as the audience waits, paralyzed to see if Grace Kelly will be murdered.

One of the most poignant Hitchcock touches comes at the very beginning. We see Milland kiss Kelly in a standard, everyday, run-of-the mill kiss given by a wife to a husband before he leaves for work. When the American, Mark, arrives on the screen he has a passionate kiss for Kelly. Without words we know the relationship of the three main characters of the story. That is a standard device employed by Hitchcock. It allows the audience to see the exposition quickly at the beginning of the movie and does not have it intrude on the story. Much like his cameo appearances. He appears here in a photograph Tony shows Charles Swann. It appears about 20 minutes into the picture.

Knott’s story is not that original. A husband wants to kill his wealthy wife for the insurance money. It is the motive in countless suspense or mystery stories. What makes this so suspenseful is that Ray Milland’s character, Tony, sets out how the murder will be committed. From there the audience is hooked as to how everything should go. It is up to Knott and in the movie Hitchcock to introduce devices that stall the plan and make the audience squirm as they wait for Grace Kelly to be murdered. It is suspense at its most basic, but most brilliant. A key aspect to making the suspense work is the way Ray Milland acts. He is a suave criminal who is completely confident in his ability. He meticulously blackmails common criminal Charles Swann, played by Anthony Dawson, to help him murder his wife. Throughout the picture, the audience wants Tony to be successful. He has gotten us to believe that murder is a perfectly innocent thing to do, like buying a car.

Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it was released in 3D. Just like today, in the 1950s the 3D craze was in. Most famously The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was shot in this way. Hitchcock had amazing foresight, one of the qualities which make his movies so wonderful for today’s audiences, and felt that the 3D craze was just a fad. In order to not ruin his movie, but still give in to the 3D crazy studio bosses,

Hitchcock used to form sparingly, but effectively. The most breathtaking example of 3D occurred while Grace Kelly was being strangled. At one point she reaches back for a pair of scissors. For an audience watching this in 3D it seemed like she was reaching out at them. In today’s prints without the 3D, the shot is still stunning. Ray Milland gives a great performance. As does Grace Kelly, who seems unaware of the whole thing. Robert Cummings as Mark, the American, is good in a supporting role. As is detective, and constant Hitchcock supporting actor, John Williams.

Anyone interested in the art of suspense needs to see this movie. It should be taught in film and writing classes as textbook examples of how to manipulate an audience.

 

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Movie Review: TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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TO CATCH A THIEF MOVIE POSTER
TO CATCH A THIEF, 1955
Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Cary Grant, Grace Kelly
Review by Steven Painter

SYNOPSIS:

American expatriate John Robie living in high style on the Riviera is a retired cat burglar. He must find out who a copy cat is to keep a new wave of jewel thefts from being pinned on him. High on list of prime victims is Jessie Stevens, in Europe to help daughter Frances find a suitable husband. Lloyds of London insurance agent is using a thief to catch a thief. Take an especially close look at scene where Robie gets Jessie’s attention, dropping an expensive casino chip down decolletage of French roulette player.

REVIEW:

The French Riviera is the setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955). This movie is beloved by audiences and typically dismissed by film theorists and critics. The disappointment expressed by critics is understandable. But so is the joy coming from any audience that watches.

In this movie we see the French Riviera at its best. Robert Burks won an Academy Award for his color cinematography. Grace Kelly is cool, charming and elegant. This is one of her best performances and probably the best of her three Hitchcock films. The others being Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954). Cary Grant is also great in this movie. He always gave great performances when working for Hitch, but this one is special. These are the reasons why audiences enjoy To Catch a Thief.

The story is the main reason why theorists and critics dismiss it. It revolves around a series of burglaries. Grant plays John Robie, also known as The Cat. Robie used to be a great cat burglar, specializing in jewelry. He became a well-respected hero during World War II though when he joined the Resistance against the Nazis. His good name is being dragged through the mud when a new cat burglar takes to the streets stealing jewelry. Of course everyone believes Robie is the one doing all the taking.

He is able to avoid the police in the opening sequence of the film. He ends up on a passenger bus into town. This is where Hitchcock makes one of his best cameo appearances, be sure to check it out.

Once in town Robie goes around to old friends to see what they can dig up about the new cat burglar. They don’t give him much and he makes his way to the hotels on the Riviera. His only ally seems to be insurance agent Hughson, played by Hitchcock stalwart John Williams. Hughson’s priority is to insure the jewelry of a wealthy American woman who is on vacation with her daughter, Francie, played by Kelly.

Here Robie and Francie fall in love. Francie seems fascinated by Robie’s former career as a burglar. The mystery and suspense is put on the backburner as the two stars’ romance develops. Although there is a daring car chase in which Kelly drives through the winding hills of the Riviera. This is an eerie scene to watch considering what would happen to Kelly later when she became Princess of Monaco.

Now, I’m not someone who thinks there should be suspense in every scene or that romance has no place in a mystery film, but the techniques Hitchcock uses are not very original. This is one of the reasons why I’m not a huge fan of this movie. For instance there is a scene where Kelly and Grant are kissing. That is intercut with fireworks. I haven’t seen that this month. I guess I just expect something different from a technical pioneer like Hitchcock.

The mystery gets started again as the romance gets hotter. The climax of the movie takes place at a costume party. Edith Head did a marvelous job in designing the costumes for this movie. She did a great job on costume design for all movies she did, but the gowns she designed for Grace Kelly in the three Hitchcock pictures are ones that stand out. Hitch loved working with her and all the leading ladies adored her designs. The most suspense in the movie comes during a rooftop chase. This is well done and adds something new to the Hitchcock cannon, but it is not the reason why people watch To Catch a Thief. This scene, and really the whole movie, needs to be watched on the big screen. That way you can fully appreciate the gorgeous cinematography of Robert Burks and the great gowns of Edith Head.

One of the main reasons why I disliked the movie is that I knew who the cat burglar was early on. I’m not sure if other people will figure it out that quick, but if they do then it could be a long ride to knowing that you are right. Not that there isn’t great scenery and great acting to help pass the time. It’s just that I expected a little bit more from Alfred Hitchcock.

 

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Movie Review: THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955)

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The Trouble With Harry, 1955
Classic Movie Reviews
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring John Forsythe, Shirley McLaine, Edmund Gwen
Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock, Jerry Mathers
Review by Cheryl Farr

Synopsis

When Harry’s corpse is discovered in the countryside of a quaint town, the residents struggle, very politely of course, with who is responsible for the untimely death, and what to do about the troublesome corpse.

Review

This dark, quirky comedy deals with death in a very matter-of-fact manner. Hitchcock grew up with a European outlook of death—not necessarily morbid, but with the ability to find humor in it. As a result, he was able to take the novel by Jack Trevor Story, and present one of his few true comedies. The storyline is fairly simple, the corpse of an outsider is discovered and three different people believe they may have been the killer.

Throughout the film, the creative artist helps gather clues and by the end, the truth is revealed. What makes this fun to watch is the way the characters react to the death and their possible responsibility for it—with proper decorum. As Miss Gravely comes upon Captain Wiles dragging the corpse away, she calmly asks, “Is there a problem?” Or the bespectacled doctor who trips over the corpse on three different occasions before he sees that it’s a corpse and Captain Wiles comments that he hopes the doctor never performs surgery on him.

What’s also interesting about the story is that this dead man has the uncanny ability to bring people together. Sam now has the opportunity to meet Jenny, a girl he has admired from afar. Miss Gravely now has the courage to ask the Captain to tea. Harry has done more for the people in death than in life. Unloved, un-mourned, they all see him as a problem to be solved rationally and logically. Even by today’s standards, some of the dialogue is hilarious. This comedy stands up to the test of time. The beautiful autumn panorama of Vermont and light, comedic score lighten the subject matter and add greatly to the peaceful calm that has been disturbed by Harry’s appearance.

Last Thoughts: Unfortunately, this was not a box office success for Hitchcock. This was a departure from what he had produced earlier. The audiences were expecting a thriller rather than a comedy and were disappointed. Additionally, American audiences didn’t find the subject matter particularly funny. However, European audiences loved it and the film played there for a year or more. This was Shirley McLaine’s first film role as an energetic 19 year-old.

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Movie Review: THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH MOVIE POSTER
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, 1956
Classic Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring James Stewart, Doris Day
Review by Steven Painter

SYNOPSIS:

Dr. Ben McKenna, his wife Jo and their son Hank are on a touring holiday of Africa when they meet the mysterious Louis Bernard on a bus. The next day Bernard is murdered in the local marketplace, but before he dies he manages to reveal details of an assassination about to take place in London. Fearing that their plot will be revealed, the assassins kidnap Hank in order to keep the McKenna’s silent. Ben and Jo go to London and take matters into their own hands.

REVIEW:

Remakes are a part of Hollywood. So are projects that are announced, but then scrapped. A remake that has been announced, but hopefully won’t be made is The Birds (1963). From what I have read the people involved with the project totally miss the point of the movie. It isn’t about birds attacking people, but families. Anyways, The Birds is a movie that will be talked about sometime in the future. For now, I’ll go back to remakes and those trendy remakes of Alfred Hitchcock movies. Psycho (1998) is a good example of a poor Hitchcock remake. Hitchcock himself even traversed in the remake universe when he remade his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in 1956.

Being the most popular director in the world, Hitchcock movies were always in demand. Because of this demand, producers pressured him to come up with stories quickly. It wasn’t his style to rush into anything so at certain points in his career he would take on an easy project just to “recharge the batteries” as he called it. One such project was Dial M for Murder (1953), another The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Universal came to Hitch and asked him to remake one of his earlier British movies. After much deliberation, Hitch and his associates decided on The Man Who Knew Too Much. The original is fairly good, but could definitely be improved. The remake is in color, which makes it more acceptable to modern audiences and it does feature James Stewart and Doris Day in order to better market the picture. Other than that, though, there isn’t much that makes this remake special.

Besides asking Hitch to remake one of his films, Universal requested that a catchy song be put in so that they could sell records on top of movie tickets. Bernard Herrmann, who composed the score and played the role of the Albert Hall conductor in the movie, was not known for catchy lyrical music. So some songwriters were brought in and wrote “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” for Doris Day to sing. Her singing is about the only bright spot of her time on screen. The title of the song was derived from a line in the Ava Gardner movie The Barefoot Contessa (1954). The song, of course, has become a hit and associated with Doris Day more so than with the movie.Hitch and Stewart made a good team and Stewart performs well here. His performance is superior to Leslie Banks’ in the original. This might be because Stewart’s character is better developed here. He is Dr. McKenna. Not only a doctor, but a father. The man who is supposed to have all the answers and protect his family. So when his son, Hank is kidnapped, Dr. McKenna has to find the answers. He struggles to do this. Stewart does a great job, as he did throughout his career, as the everyman looking for answers. He is a big reason why this movie is worth watching.

The biggest defect of the remake, other than Doris Day, is the absence of Peter Lorre as Abbott. In the original, Abbott is a suave bad guy who is extremely cultured. The epitome of the white-collar criminal. There is not hint of a cultured villain in this one. Mr. and Mrs. Drayton who capture Hank, are not good substitutes. This is odd, as like most of the movie, the characters are stronger. As great as Peter Lorre’s performance in the original was — his character was rather limited. Had Lorre been asked to play Mr. Drayton I can only imagine how great this movie would have been. But he was not asked to play the part and the actors who replaced him are not in his league.For the most part, the original and the remake follow the same storyline — once arrived in London that is. The beginning of the remake in Morocco is interesting, especially the scene in the restaurant where Stewart and another family from America have difficulty with the local customs. Here we see Hitchcock’s wonderful sense humor.

There is also the famous scene where the black make-up comes off of the murdered Louis Bernard, onto the hands of Dr. McKenna. This murder is shot well and is the catalyst for the rest of the story. Because Dr. McKenna has learned Bernard’s secret, his son is captured in order to silence him.

The McKennas arrive in London and begin their search for Hank, but are conveniently stopped from being able to find him. These suspense methods were employed in the first movie and have been kept for the most part intact here.

There is an interesting scene in a taxidermy store, which will echo a similar scene in the parlor of the Bates Motel four years later in Psycho (1960). Hitch had a fascination with birds and taxidermy. The scene itself is not great and probably didn’t need to be added. It was just a directorial splurge.

The Albert Hall performance is longer in the remake, probably to give Herrmann some more screen time. It is great to see the Albert Hall in color for the first time in a Hitchcock picture. The old performance hall had been a staple of Hitch’s British pictures. The famous image of the gun coming out from behind the curtain to murder the foreign dignitary during the cymbal crash during the symphony is still intact from the first movie.Doris Day screams and saves the day for the foreign dignitary. This is all nice, but it is only Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is basically a plot point in the story that doesn’t matter. There is a great joke that Hitch used to tell about the meaning of the word MacGuffin, but that will be saved for another day. Since the overt plot points are basically MacGuffins, I’ll sum up the story by saying that the McKennas work hard trying to find their son somewhere in London. They are unable to and are about to give up when Day prevents the murder of the foreign ambassador at the Albert Hall. The smitten ambassador invites the McKennas back to his embassy to say thanks.

Lo and behold Hank happens to be in the embassy. The McKennas find this out when he whistles “Whatever Will Be, Will Be.” This gives Day another chance to showcase the song. The extra screen time was also beneficial to the pocketbooks of the Universal board of directors.

I guess you could say, like all remakes, this one was done for purely commercial reasons. Perhaps that is why it does not really build as much on the original as it could have.

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Movie Review: TORN CURTAIN (1966) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

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TORN CURTAIN MOVIE POSTER
TORN CURTAIN, 1966
Horror/Thriller Movie Review

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Lila Kedrova, Hansjörg Felmy, Tamara Toumanova, Ludwig Donath
Review by Steven Painter

SYNOPSIS:

An American scientist publicly defects to East Germany as part of a cloak and dagger mission to find the solution for a formula resin and then figuring out a plan to escape back to the West.

REVIEW:

Alfred Hitchcock never really worked with big stars, or at least he never worked with big stars he wasn’t familiar with. Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant were making their second movies with Hitchcock when they appeared together in Notorious (1946). Grace Kelly and James Stewart had appeared in one Hitchcock movie apiece before appearing together in Rear Window (1954). Grant and Kelly had two Hitchcock movies under their belts before making To Catch a Thief (1955). So things were different when Hitchcock cast Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain (1966).

Many things are different about Torn Curtain. For one, the movie has aged severely since 1990. The phrase “torn curtain” obviously refers to the Iron Curtain, which was the largest symbol of the Cold War. It no longer has any significance now that the war is over. It is also different because the two major stars, Newman and Andrews, had long, distinguished careers, but this movie is rarely mentioned as being a part of it even though they appeared in a movie directed by the world’s most popular director at this point. Perhaps the reason why this movie is not mentioned is because it is not that great. It received lukewarm reactions from audiences and critics when released and has only gotten worse since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Our story begins on a boat filled with nuclear physicists. One of them, Michael Armstrong, played by Newman, is actually a spy for the U.S. government. His assistant and fiancée, Sarah Sherman, played by Andrews, has no idea of his real work. So she is very surprised when she finds out her husband has decided to defect to East Germany.

He does his best to lose her, she does her best to follow him and the two end up in an East German airport. Michael is celebrated by the East Germans as he is a symbol of people in the west getting fed up with democracy and coming over to their side.

Michael confesses to Sarah the real reason why he has defected. This scene is interesting, not only for the information gained, but because it occurs in a large hotel room in which the only lighting Hitchcock used seemed to come from natural places i.e. windows and lamps. Typically movies use light sources from off-screen, but act as if they are coming from on-screen. In this movie Hitch tried to keep all the light used coming from natural sources. It works to various degrees, but is most pronounced in this scene.

Adventures ensue as Michael has the task of trying to learn a secret formula from the East German scientist Dr. Lindt.

Michael is forced to murder Gromek, a taxi driver who brings Michael to a farm in which he has been instructed by the U.S. government to make contact with. Gromek gets some ideas as to why Michael is really in East Germany and Michael must kill him. Unlike other Hitchcock murders, this one is not short and pretty. It is long and hard. It was an attempt at Hitchcock to capture more realism, since killing someone is not as easy as it typically looks in the movies.

Michael meets Dr. Lindt and is able to trick him into giving him the formula. From here the suspense is ratcheted up as Michael and Sarah make a daring escape back to the west. They are the ones who create a sort of tear in the Iron Curtain by acquiring the formula.

The suspense in their escape is well done, but it should have been as each situation the coupe finds themselves in seems to have been taken from another Hitchcock movie. There is a bus ride with interesting characters that echoes similar trips in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Saboteur (1942). The couple ends up in a theatre, surrounded by bad guys. This is similar to The 39 Steps (1935), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and (1956) and Stage Freight (1950). Of course Michael and Sarah get out of each situation in a different way than in previous Hitchcock movies. In the theater they shout “fire!” and everyone promptly moves towards the exits. Even the final escape for the couple, from a Scandinavian ship, seemed like a rehash from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935). Michael and Sarah end up in the icy water, forced to swim ashore to the free west instead of being removed from the ship while hiding in boxes like the Marx Brothers were.

Torn Curtain probably wasn’t a bad movie when it was released. It is long and does rehash some familiar territory for Hitchcock, but the formula was effective and created suspense. It does lag in some parts, but Newman and Andrews give good performances. For today’s audience though, the movie can be hard to watch as the premise behind it has no relevance in the world of today.

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