These notes were first produced for a lockdown Zoom event in 2020 focused on the film Suspicion (1941), one of the RKO classic films held by the BBC and still currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Often overlooked in Hitchcock’s filmography, the film is topical again because of #MeToo issues both in its plot and also the experiences of its female lead, Joan Fontaine. (NB This post is over 4,000 words.)
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated and most discussed filmmakers of the 20th century. But much of his reputation rests on a handful of famous titles drawn from distinct phases of his career. In the later stages of his career he was able to in effect run his own production unit, even when based on the lot of a major studio. He became one of the Hollywood directors promoted as an auteur and gave long interviews to the French critics turned directors, Claude Chabrol, Erich Rohmer and François Truffaut. He was also a showman and celebrity figure for audiences, promoting his own work in unique ways.
Suspicion is an important work for several reasons but in some ways it has been overshadowed by other films he made in Hollywood in the 1940s, especially Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), both of which starred Ingrid Bergman, and his earlier success Rebecca (1940) which announced his arrival from England. Rebecca had made a star of Joan Fontaine who had been nominated for an Academy Award. She would go on to win for Suspicion, the only actor to do so in a Hitchcock film. But during this period (from 1939-46) Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Rebecca was a Selznick production but in 1941 Hitchcock and Fontaine were loaned out to RKO and Suspicion was made as an RKO film. Hitchcock was in control of the production but there is still a debate about whether RKO pressurised him into changing the film’s ending.
The ‘romance thriller’
Hitchcock was one of the few Hollywood directors recognised by audiences and critics alike during the studio period. His late 1930s films made in England were often hits in America and he became established as a Hollywood director through his work for Selznick. ‘Hitchcockian’ later became a term to describe the films that carried his ‘signature’ – i.e. his choice of themes, genre, performers, narrative structures etc.. Many of these films were forms of the ‘romance thriller’. This isn’t the title of a genre so much as a general term for several different kinds of films. They all had at their centre a romantic/sexual relationship between a man and a woman, but this was a relationship threatened by one of two possible dangerous forces.
Some of the films placed a couple in danger from an external threat, often by accident. Several were spy thrillers like the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and 1956. In this case the couple can only survive by fighting together to overcome the external threat. There is romance and thrills (and often spectacular action). The other scenario sees a relationship which faces a danger from ‘within’ when, although the couple may be in love, one or both of them become suspicious about the other and a psychological struggle between the two ensues. In some cases there are both dangers, so in North By Northwest (1959) Cary Grant is pulled into a spy story by accident and finds himself attracted to Eva Marie Saint, who may be one of the spies, but is also possibly ‘turned’ by Grant’s charm and sex appeal.
Hollywood in the 1940s was a distinctive filmmaking environment for a director like Hitchcock. The ‘studio system’ was in full operation and one of its features was the ‘self-regulation’ practised by the studios by means of the Production Code, sometimes referred to by the name of its founder Will Hays and sometimes by its principal administrator Joseph Breen. It’s ironic perhaps that some of the most salacious stories, often so-called ‘hardboiled novels’, were bought by the studios which then had to find ways of making the scripts acceptable to the Breen Office. The code was enforced from 1934 until the late 1950s with a requirement for traditional values and protection of moral standards, largely based on the teachings of the Catholic church in the US. This was not likely to appeal to Hitchcock, who, although he had a Catholic background himself, loved to explore personal morality and enjoyed nothing more than focusing on the excitement and danger of sexual relationships.
As is well known, Hitchcock tended to cast certain kinds of female stars in his films. The ‘ice blonde’ would be one such type, most famously represented by Grace Kelly. Hitchcock would argue that these characters were ice on the surface but hot beneath. He tried to cast elegant actors he could ‘bring down’ rather than the opposite (i.e. those of humbler origins) who he might ‘lift up’– which he said never worked. Towards the end of his career he would be criticised for his treatment of Tippi Hedren in particular when she appeared as the lead in The Birds (1962) and Marnie (1964), both films which featured challenging roles for a young and inexperienced actor. Marnie is in some ways a mirror image of Suspicion. How would Hitchcock fare in the contemporary environment of #MeToo? It might be possible to argue that the two films that Joan Fontaine made with Hitchcock and which made her a star, Rebecca and Suspicion, are both narratives in which a young bride (Fontaine was 22/23 when she made the films) is faced with an older, sexually attractive and arguably potentially sinister man, whose actions towards her are abusive.
This term has come to mean the long process by which a powerful man psychologically undermines the confidence, the beliefs and in extreme cases the will to live of a woman, possibly as part of a sexual powerplay or for financial gain if he can control her money in some way. Either way it is clearly abuse. The term comes from the play Gas Light (1938) by Patrick Hamilton which was successfully adapted for the cinema, first in the UK as Gaslight (1940), directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. Set in 1880s London, the first thing a new bride notices is the flickering gas light. She is unaware of her husband’s activities in which he secretly searches the closed rooms at the top of the house (where previously a young woman was murdered) which causes the gas pressure to drop. The flickering light and the strange noises from above become part of a nightmare that the husband creates while assuring his wife that she is imagining things. (There is a detective who is suspicious of the husband.) The film was remade in Hollywood in 1944 by George Cukor with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Ms Bergman won the Oscar for her performance.
It’s not difficult to see why the term is used now but a little caution is needed in understanding the context of the 1940s. These films would then have been thought of as melodramas. Often they might have featured the major female stars of the period (Ingrid Bergman followed Gaslight with her two Hitchcock films). There were, arguably more roles and more ‘meaty’ roles for female stars in this period and in addition they often were able to use properties written by women (Daphne du Maurier in the case of Rebecca). Hitchcock was supported on all his films by his wife Alma Reville who acted first as editor and then as writer or ‘story consultant’ throughout his career. Hitchcock also employed Joan Harrison, first as his secretary in 1933 and then increasingly in a role complementary to that of Alma. Harrison travelled with the Hitchcocks to America in 1939 and her expertise was recognised by MGM who hired her as a screenwriter in 1941. She was an Oxford graduate who had also studied at the Sorbonne and in 1943 became a producer at Universal and one of the few women to hold contract producer roles in the studio era. Both Joan and Alma contributed to the script of Suspicion.
The female audience for Hollywood productions was also a major factor in the kinds of films made in the 1940s. This was the era of the ‘woman’s picture’, films built around stars such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Films were often adapted from novels such as Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty which was a major hit for Stanwyck in 1937 (with both earlier and later versions in 1925 and 1990). Film audiences have changed in their composition over time. The 1940s saw a greater proportion of women, particularly between 1942 and 1945. What kinds of films did these audiences (sometimes women in groups) want to see? We know that in the UK, James Mason became a star in the wartime period. In retrospect it seems a shame that Hitchcock did not use Mason until North by Northwest in 1959. Mason’s attraction for audiences in the 1940s was partly down to his roles that might be described as ‘gaslighting’, e.g. in The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944), They Were Sisters (1945) and The Seventh Veil (1945).
In 2020 a new adaptation of Rebecca received mixed reviews but a fair amount of interest. There are complex reasons why audiences seem to prefer certain types of films at certain times and that will be one of our questions about Suspicion – both in terms of what was actually presented on screen and what ‘might have been’.
‘Englishness’ on screen in America in 1941
Suspicion is odd in the sense that it presents an adaptation of a British novel, by a British filmmaker with a nearly 100% British cast, produced on a Hollywood sound stage. The film also represents a very ‘English’ vision of an upper middle-class rural society. The significance of this is that in 1940/41 (the film opened in the US in November 1941), Hollywood and large swathes of US public opinion were determinedly ‘neutral’ about the war, partly because of the strong German communities in Chicago and other parts of the country.
The British casting was possible because of the large Hollywood community of British actors, although some of them had already returned to the UK to enlist. Others were attempting to find ways to contribute to the war effort while still working in the US. Hitchcock himself was already in touch with the UK Ministry of Information about ways in which he could support the war effort. This angered Selznick since he felt he was paying Hitchcock’s wages.
Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)
Joan was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland who had already become a Hollywood star through her roles opposite Errol Flynn for Warner Bros. To avoid confusion, Joan took one of her mother’s names when she began a contract at RKO in 1935. When she was cast in Rebecca she had already appeared in several films, including some leading roles, but not in films that had much prestige or box office success. Selznick put her under contract after the success of Rebecca and, like Hitchcock, she found herself being ‘loaned’ to RKO. (This was a lucrative move by Selznick since the fee paid by RKO was much greater than the salaries he paid out to Fontaine and Hitchcock.)
The young Fontaine perhaps regretted her decision to sign for Selznick. She found herself suspended by Selznick when she refused some of the roles he suggested for her and she was caught between the manipulations of Hitchcock and the controlling influence of Selznick. Between them they did contribute to her success in Rebecca and Suspicion, but it wasn’t easy for her. Fontaine also found it difficult to build a rapport with Grant who is reported to have found her ‘unprofessional’. One difference between Fontaine and both Grant and Hitchcock is that she had no other work between Rebecca and Suspicion while in the same time period, Grant and Hitchcock were working on at least two other titles.
It’s worth noting that Fontaine made comments about Hitchcock that have been repeated by other female stars and about other directors (e.g. John Ford) along the lines that they sometimes felt bullied or manipulated by their male directors but that they felt that this sometimes deliberate harsh treatment did make them better actors. The #MeToo issue can be found in the production itself as well as in the script.
Fontaine was very beautiful in her early twenties and she received a third Oscar nomination in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She was popular with audiences in the early 1940s but perhaps feared being trapped in the same kinds of ‘romantic melodrama’ roles. In her later films Fontaine was cast in a wider range of parts. Her biggest critical success was for her own company Rampart Pictures in Letter to an Unknown Woman (US 1948). In that film she begins as a teenager and ends as an older woman. As she got older she gradually moved into more theatre and TV work and given she began very young as a studio contractee, she didn’t make as many films as might be expected over her long career.
Cary Grant (1904-1986)
Cary Grant was an established A list star by 1941. He had learned to play against a number of sometimes older and ‘strong’ female stars such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. In most of these roles, Grant was at worst cast as a ‘cad’. He wasn’t a ‘villain’. Compared to Fontaine, he was vastly experienced and had worked with directors such as Cukor, Stevens and Hawks. He hadn’t worked with Hitchcock and one of the possible issues watching Suspicion is the urge to think about his three later roles for Hitchcock. He had actually worked once on a film with Joan Fontaine but she had only a relatively minor role in Gunga Din (1939).
Suspicion (US 1941)
(SPOILERS: This discusses some of the plot so you may prefer to read this section after watching the film.)
Suspicion was adapted from the 1932 English novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox (under the pen name ‘Francis Iles’). Rights to the novel were purchased by RKO in 1935 but the studio could not formulate a production proposal until Hitchcock discovered the possibility on his arrival. The novel has been described as a ‘psychological suspense novel’ and the same author’s previous novel Malice Aforethought, was described by one reviewer as “possibly the best shocker ever written”. Since ‘suspense’ and ‘shocker’ are key terms in the Hitchcock universe, it’s not surprising that he was attracted to the property.
RKO productions at this point were usually budgeted lower than productions at the other major studios and there are no spectacular Hitchcock action sequences in this film. In some ways, it resembles Hitchcock’s British pictures. Apart from the California coast standing in for East Sussex, most of the film was shot on the studio lot. Focus thus shifts to some of the sets, especially the house that Johnnie buys for Lina.
Although Joan Fontaine had dual UK-US nationality, she had not lived in the UK and Selznick was concerned about her ‘English accent’ (which seems to me very good most of the time). Cary Grant had arrived in New York from Bristol in 1920 aged 16. The other writer involved on the screenplay, Samson Raphaelson, was selected by Hitchcock possibly because after working with Lubitsch he might be able to bring a lightness to the dialogue. Otherwise the screenplay was the work of Alma and Joan Harrison. The cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. was American but had worked in France and in the UK, including on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and also on Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), Hitchcock’s previous film at RKO. Much of the rest of the crew were RKO contractees, including Van Nest Polglase as Art Director. Franz Waxman the film’s music composer had been praised for his score for Rebecca. RKO’s nominal producer on the shoot, Harry Edington is not included in the credits titles. Hitchcock appeared to have a relatively free hand.
The film begins with the meeting of the two central characters on the train from Waterloo – a familiar Hitchcock setting – and uses a familiar device to make Lina look ‘mousey’. She wears a hat and coat, a buttoned-up cardigan, ’sensible’ lace-up brogues and gloves. She’s wearing reading glasses and perusing a book on child psychology. It’s not as dowdy a presentation as Bette Davis is given at the start of Now Voyager (1942) before her ‘makeover’ and the glasses can’t disguise her pretty eyes, but this first ‘look’ at Lina gives Johnnie the opportunity on their next meeting to loosen her hair as part of his long-term goal of seducing her. This second meeting, alone at the top of a low hill, does seem to set up a metaphor of ‘falling in love’ for Lina and possibly preparing her for a different kind of ‘fall’ by Johnnie. “What did you think I was trying to do, kill you?” Johnnie asks as they struggle in the wind and that hat and coat from the train are literally blown away. As well as loosening her hair (a familiar sexual symbol), Johnnie makes fun of her through his creation of a pigtail and also his first use of “monkey face” as an ‘endearment’. This single scene continues with some remarkably provocative dialogue, ending with Lina’s implication that Johnnie’s behaviour (and her own response to it) might cause her father to have a stroke.
We might consider a comparison between Suspicion and Marnie (1964). The two women are linked by their relationship with their horse. Marnie loves her horse ‘Forio’ as a substitute or a displacement of her sexual desire. Lina suggests to Johnnie that if she got her bit between his teeth she would have trouble handling him. Both women are in a difficult psychological position via the confident, ‘strong’ men who seem eager to gain control over them. Marnie’s condition seems much more serious, but Lina is the one whose lover might be aiming to kill her.
The narrative proceeds apace with Lina falling more deeply in love even as she begins to discover that Johnnie has no money and is expecting her to inherit from her father. The death of Lina’s father is a key moment in both psychoanalytical terms and in the narrative development. Are we worried now because Lina is going to be both more dependent on Johnnie and perhaps more frightened about what Johnnie might do? The reading of the will and the drive along the cliffs are markers for later events. The narrative introduces a secondary character whose role seems to be to further confuse Lina’s understanding of Johnnie and what she knows about him. This is ‘Beaky’, an old ‘chum’ played by Nigel Bruce who specialised in character parts as a bumbling aristocrat or military type – best known for playing Dr. Watson in the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes films. Can Lina trust Beaky, who seems incapable of deception? Bruce became a popular supporting actor for audiences in this period.
One narrative strand that develops in the film is the sense that Lina has to act like a detective, discovering what Johnnie is up to. At the same time ‘detective fiction’ becomes part of the plotting. When Lina comes out of the bookshop (did you spot Hitchcock at the postbox?) and meets Mrs Newsham, she learns about Johnnie at the racetrack. In turn, Mrs Newsham notices the detective novels Lina has bought for Johnnie. Later we will meet Isobel Sedbusk, the crime writer who Johnnie has been quizzing about poisons. Isobel Sedbusk explains to Lina that the ‘murderer’ in her novels is actually her hero and this is also Hitchcock’s own view as he expressed in talking about the film and its ending.
Hitchcock the showman talked about his ideas at length in interviews and in pieces he wrote. In one piece for the New York Times in 1957, Hitchcock wrote about ‘English Murders’ (See Gottlieb, 1995: 133). He suggests that ‘real English murders’ are very dark and very few films are based on them because the murderer is not a character audiences can identify with or as the film trade puts it, carry the vital element of the ‘rooting interest’. This is what in Suspicion made Hitchcock decide that the idea of Johnnie as a murderer had to be a figment of Lina’s imagination. This is odd because of course, the script was based on a novel, not a real case. More likely, one might think, that pressure was put on Hitchcock because Cary Grant’s star image, though it could cope with ‘suspicions’, could not be damaged by the suggestion that he was a cold-blooded killer. (Note that in 1960, with Psycho, Hitchcock did use a real serial killer as the inspiration for his ‘shocking’ film at a time when the Production Code was beginning to break down and the director could become more daring.)
There are many different views about the ending and why Hitchcock chose the fantasy option. Hitchcock himself tells another story about how RKO executives asked him to cut out any of the darker moments featuring Grant, “but the resulting cut only lasted 55 minutes”. This story also refers to Hitchcock’s working method which matched John Ford’s idea of ‘editing in the camera’. Hitchcock storyboarded many scenes and only shot the footage he knew he would use. This infuriated producers like Selznick who expected directors to provide wide shots and alternatives for each set-up so that films could be recut at a later stage. This was impossible in the case of both Hitchcock and Ford.
An interesting observation came from the French critic Jean-André Fischi. He argues that Hitchcock’s films are often ‘about’ how film narratives work – as if the film is a kind of contract with the audience in which the director agrees to show the audience ‘how it is done’. In the case of Suspicion, Fischi argues, the ending is such a let-down (‘Oh yes, you were wrong’) that it forces us to think back over all the clues and instead of dispelling doubts, the ending creates a new sense of disquiet. (see Roud ed.1980: 506)
Suspicion is certainly less well-regarded by critics and film scholars than the most well-known Hitchcock titles, but this isn’t reflected in the industry or audience response to the film.
Sight and Sound’s American correspondent, Herman G. Weinberg reported:
“Hitchcock has not been able to re-capture that first fine careless rapture he had in England and his new film, Suspicion, which might at the very least have been not worse than Rebecca as an excursion into the macabre, emerged as a diluted version of an interesting psychological story, which added up to nothing but ennui at the end.” (Spring 1942).
By contrast, here’s what an American trade paper reported for its readership of independent cinema exhibitors:
“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character played by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers.The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband is about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion. (Harrison’s Reports, September 1941)
And here are some comments from US newspaper reviewers:
“Certain to move and amuse you as much as it makes your hair stand on end.” (New York Herald Tribune)
“A distinctly superior picture.” (New York Post)
“A masterpiece in disturbing emotionally draining drama. Adult, astounding, pulling knowingly on its psychological undertones.” (Chicago Herald-American)
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, one of the most influential critics of the period suggests it is not Hitchcock’s best because the script doesn’t offer the director much to work with but:
“Still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense.”
It is clear that in the US, Hitchcock ’s films are expected to do best in urban, up market cinemas. Even so, Suspicion attracted big enough audiences to be deemed a hit by the trade press. (Most of his films were hits – Hitchcock was ‘hot’ in Hollywood in the early 1940s.)
Unfortunately it is more difficult to discover what UK audiences made of the film. Monthly Film Bulletin’s ‘D.E.B.’ – reviewers were then only known by their initials – offers a generally supportive review praising Fontaine and Grant and “smooth direction” which “adds largely to the mounting excitement”.
It’s worth noting that at this time interest in psychology and psychiatry was much greater in the US than in the UK. It is also worth remembering that audiences in the UK in December 1941-January 1942 had very different moods because of the war. Americans were still getting used to the idea that they were at war which came a few weeks after the film opened. In the UK this was a very bad period with the fighting still going against the UK – though the fact that the Americans were now allies was a welcome change.
In terms of current writing about the film, I recommend the two internet sources below by Alison Light (1996, online by October 2020) discussing Rebecca and current debates about gaslighting and Kristen Lopez’s 2016 review of Suspicion:
“As the audience worries about Johnnie’s intentions it’s impossible to act against him. The Cary Grant persona is in full effect and it’s why the film works so well when it’s setting him up as the villain, and it’s also why the film’s ending is such a crushing disappointment. Not only does it completely belittle Lina’s intelligence, but it also requires extreme jumps in logic to make sense.
This beautifully produced psychological suspense thriller may have more gendered notions of psychology than are timely for today, but to watch Grant flirt with villainy is beyond delicious!”
Gottlieb, Sidney (ed) (1995) Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Berkely: University of California Press
Light, Alison (1996) ‘Love to death: Hitchcock, du Maurier and Rebecca, Sight and Sound, May
Lopez, Kristen (2016) Review of Suspicion on https://ticklishbiz.com/2016/07/06/suspicion-1941/
Roud, Richard (ed) (1980) ‘Alfred Hitchcock II’ by Jean-André Fischi, in Cinema a Critical Dictionary Vol 1, London: Martin Secker and Warburg
Spoto, Donald (1983) The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, London: William Collins
Roy Stafford 17/11/20
Stage Fright is an unusual film in several ways and seems to have been dismissed as ‘lesser Hitchcock’, partly because the director himself later spoke about it as a failure. It was the first of the films Hitchcock made for Warner Bros. after his attempts to make features for his own company Transatlantic Pictures. The two Transatlantic films were distributed by Warner Bros. so it wasn’t a big shift in industry terms. Stage Fright seems in some ways a reversion to ‘English Hitchcock’ and in this respect rather different to The Paradine Case (1947) made for Selznick in London. The latter title perhaps has an ‘international’ feel with Louis Jordan and Alida Valli in important roles and several leading American character actors supporting Gregory Peck as the star. Jane Wyman still fresh from her Oscar success in Johnny Belinda (1948) leads the cast of Stage Fright and is convincing for me as a young Englishwoman. Marlene Dietrich is a star singer but the rest of the cast is stuffed with well known British faces. The film is also one of Hitchcock’s more successful comedy hybrids with a winning performance from Alastair Sim (though Hitchcock perhaps found Sim ‘too much’ at times).
Adapted from Selwyn Jepson’s novel Man Running by Whitfield Cook and Hitchcock’s wife and fellow filmmaker Alma Reville, the novel’s title alone suggests a Hitchcock film. The change of title for the adaptation then points to a narrative in which a range of ‘performances’ by different ‘actors’ become central to the narrative. The opening credits appear over a theatre safety curtain which then rises to reveal the streets around St Paul’s with wartime bomb damage still visible in the open plots where buildings have been demolished. The film will end with the safety curtain coming down.
Driving past St Paul’s is Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) in her open two-seater with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). Almost immediately Cooper begins to explain why he has asked Eve to drive him out of town. He begins a long flashback which will reveal details of how he has helped the singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) escape from a murder scene in which her husband has been killed. But in doing so, Jonathan has incriminated himself. Eve must be infatuated with Jonathan since she appears to accept his story and the implication that he is besotted with Charlotte. She takes Jonathan to the coast and he hides out in her father’s house while Eve returns to London to try to find out more about Charlotte and how she might discover how to prove Jonathan is innocent. It is this opening with its flashback that has proved controversial about the film. Today it perhaps doesn’t cause the same problems. See what you think when you’ve watched the film.
At this point the narrative appears familiar but also altered from the ‘romance thriller’ structure that Hitchcock had been developing since the mid-1930s. Jonathan effectively disappears from the narrative for the entire central section of the film. He is ‘replaced’ by Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding) who is in charge of the murder enquiry. Eve is a drama student enrolled at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and she hopes to use her performance skills to get close to Charlotte. She approaches the Inspector in the hope of learning something but there is clearly already an attraction between them and she christens him ‘Ordinary’ Smith. ‘Ordinary’ has replaced Jonathan as the active agent in the narrative. The investigation will play out in a typically Hitchcockian manner with misunderstandings aplenty. Eve’s parents live separately but in the circumstances are re-united to help Eve. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike make a suitable ‘odd couple’ who might help or hinder. The other significant character is Charlotte’s maid played entertainingly by Kay Walsh in a rather sour Cockney role. Walsh had been a lead player in the 1930s and 1940s and this is one of her early ‘character roles’, the kind of roles female lead players were often expected to take as they got older.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot details, so I’ll just work on some of the interesting angles re Hitchcock’s approach. The reason I re-watched Stage Fright, which I had seen many years ago but largely forgotten, was because one of the paper’s in last weekend’s Hitchcock Symposium on Performance was by Melanie Williams on ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. Todd is fourth-billed in Stage Fright, but as Melanie pointed out, in 1950 he was ‘hot’ having been highly praised for his role as a badly-wounded soldier in The Hasty Heart (UK 1949) in which he played opposite Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan. That film was, like Stage Fright, a Warner Bros. picture made in the UK, but in this case in partnership with Associated British (ABPC). Though he was an English public school product (Shrewsbury), Todd was actually Irish and his father was a physician in the British Army. He himself went to Sandhurst and was a Captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and then the Parachute Regiment with a distinguished war record. He was also a trained actor from the Italia Conti Academy. He had all the right credentials but not the persona of one of Hitchcock’s ‘gentlemen’. Melanie Williams’ attribution of ‘neurotic masculinity’ in his role as Jonathan Cooper is apt. Note in the image above that he is convincing with his furrowed brow. But he seems a very different kind of character than any of those played by Cary Grant, Ray Milland or Sean Connery – all ironically less suited to be like an English gentleman but pulling it off all the same. Todd’s other problem was that he was playing opposite Michael Wilding who didn’t have the Hollywood prestige of The Hasty Heart but was one of the top British box-office stars, mainly because of his films with Anna Neagle. My personal feeling is that I’m not particularly taken with either Todd or Wilding as male stars but I can see the logic in their casting here.
Wilding as ‘Ordinary’ Smith is charming and witty and at the same time slightly vulnerable to Eve’s allure. There is a kind of ‘pairing’ structure in the film, so Eve and ‘Ordinary’ are matched by Jonathan and Charlotte. Perhaps it is a stretch to extend this to Eve’s parents who don’t really act together, but the Alastair Sim character as her father is active in supporting Eve’s ‘performances’. The fourth key player is Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte. It’s interesting that she plays a singer rather than an actor. Her performance (on stage) of the Cole Porter number ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ is one of the highlights of the film and I’ve been trying to think of other singing performances in Hitchcock films and so far I’ve only come up with Doris Day in the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a great performance but used a little differently by Hitchcock. There must be more in Hitchcock’s early career but I’m much less familiar with films such as Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Pleasure Garden (UK-Germany 1925). Charles Barr makes the point in his book English Hitchcock (Cameron and Hollis, 1999) that Hitchcock has always been interested in the role of music in dramas. But another way to look at it is in terms of ‘stage performance’ (or its equivalent). In The 39 Steps (UK 1935), the music hall stage with the ‘Memory Man’ is the setting for the climax and in The Man Who Knew Too Much it is the Albert Hall during a concert. In Stage Fright Hitchcock made use of the stage at RADA (where his daughter Patricia was a student at the time).
Hitchcock and Dietrich were roughly the same age and they had both experienced the German film industry in the 1920s. By all accounts they ‘got on’ well together and he probably didn’t treat her like he did some of his other female leads. Dietrich had learned a great deal about how to be photographed to look her best from Joseph von Sternberg and his camera crews. Hitchcock amazed his own crew by allowing her to dictate lighting and angles for her set-ups. But from the four leads I would pick out Jane Wyman as the revelation. She was in her early thirties when she made the film but I found her convincing as a younger woman. I was also impressed with her performance in All That Heaven Allows in 1955, in which she plays the ‘middle-aged’ widow who falls for Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama. I realised that I have seen very few of her films and that apart from marrying Ronald Reagan she didn’t make a great impression in her early Hollywood career, often playing second lead in in routine comedies and musicals. It wasn’t until 1946 when Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend was released that she really made a splash. Perhaps it was the early experience of comedy which helped her to get the most out of Stage Fright‘s script?
Because the archives of Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin are now easily accessible (free to S&S Subscribers) I decided to see what they thought of Stage Fright. Sight & Sound (July 1950) ran an article by Simon Harcourt-Smith in which he argues that Hitchcock is wasting his talent making films that belong in the “peculiar antiseptic dream-world of the bookstall magazine”. He suggests that if he had been lured by “the comparative ‘sophistication’ of Continental studios”, things might have turned out differently. Having dismissed Hitchcock’s Hollywood work more generally, Harcourt-Smith then turns on Stage Fright. He dismisses the central plotline between Eve, Jonathan and ‘Ordinary’ and finds the only amusement in Sim and Dietrich. He suggests that it isn’t a film at all but merely a collection of turns at a theatrical garden party – a critic’s joke since the theatrical garden party in Stage Fright is perhaps not the best of Hitchcock’s ‘set pieces’. It is this kind of criticism that made Robin Wood despair and write his 1965 book on a selection of Hitchcock’s Films. The MFB review by ‘GL’ was probably written by Gavin Lambert. He makes a similar complaint about how Hitchcock could have made the film more lively if he had not only shot it in London but also re-discovered the style of his 1930s English period. But ‘GL’ does this by arguing each point cogently. The review picks out Jane Wyman as the only one of the leads who succeeds in giving an ‘expert performance’. Dietrich “looks magnificent, sings an entertaining Cole Porter song, but fails almost completely in the dramatic scenes . . .” The highest praise is reserved for the smaller parts.
What to make of all this? I think that Stage Fright is a less successful picture but it isn’t the ‘failure’ that it is so often taken to be. I surprised myself by enjoying the film and by becoming interested in the production. It is clear to me that looking back across the whole of Hitchcock’s career, it is possible to place each of the films in context and appreciate them for what they are rather than what we want them to be. In this case, Hitchcock had got a deal with Warner Bros. which gave him some security after the commercial failure of Transatlantic Pictures, but he knew that he must turn a profit on his first venture for the studio. As far as I can see, the film was popular at the box office and it made a profit. He was able to go on and complete his four film contract with Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954). They were each successful with critics and from this point he was able to make deals with major studios which allowed him sufficient leeway to make films in the way that he wanted (most of the time at least). He was free from his Selznick deal from the early 1940s and able to base himself on major studio lots. In 1955 he began his long stint as the showman of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . He wouldn’t return to the UK to make a film until Frenzy in 1972.
This online event took place on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th June. It was organised by Adrian Garvey of Birkbeck, London University and Vicky Lowe of the University of Manchester. The event comprised four main sessions plus ‘Speakers’ Roundtables’, a discussion about music and performance featuring Neil Brand and Stephen Horne and a video essay presentation from Catherine Grant. Online events like this offer anyone interested in the subject the opportunity to join part or all of the sessions as a spectator. The sessions were accessible through Zoom but the only chance of interaction was via the ‘chat’ function which allowed questions to be put to panellists. (Questions were only visible to the panellists.) Being able to access what was in this case quite a ‘starry’ selection of film scholars was very welcome. I was able to follow only parts of three of the main sessions on what was otherwise a busy weekend so my apologies to contributors to the other presentations I wasn’t able to see.
I’m sure that we have all experienced a wide variety of online events over the past 15 months and as someone who has been on both ends of Zoom technology in events I’m all too aware of what can go wrong and how difficult it is to construct a presentation and deliver it by sharing your screen. I congratulate Adrian and Vicky for getting the show together and co-ordinating contributions from various sources so effectively. This was an impressively ‘collegiate’ event and when the inevitable glitches occurred, everybody was patient as they waited for problems to be dealt with. There is nothing like physically being at a conference/symposium, but online events do have a future I think.
The conference blurb opened with this passage:
Hitchcock’s professed disdain for actors is belied by the extraordinary range and depth of performances featured in his films. It might even be argued that many stars gave their richest and most complex performances in his work. Hitchcock’s films are also imbued with the theme of performance, as when his fugitive men and errant women assume fragile new identities and move between roles. Actors and other performers also often feature as characters.
Hitchcock scholarship has been extensive and the multi-layered concepts of stardom, acting and the exploration of ‘performances’ in Hitchcock’s films suggested a potentially fascinating mix of ideas. The second session on Friday afternoon saw Charles Barr open his paper with a surprising comparison of Julia Robert’s face and the face of her dog, which one of the Monty Python team had suggested could be read in much the same way. Hitchcock was very fond of dogs and many appear in his films. But he knew that you could usually easily tell a dog’s feelings from its face but that actors could present expressionless faces that could provoke very different readings depending on how they were shown in relation to other images as demonstrated by the Pudovkin/Kuleshov Effect. Charles explored Hitchcock’s ideas and how he used the effect before discussing the two Hitchcock shorts that he made in 1944 in London on behalf of the French Résistance. I’d never seen these before or thought about Hitchcock’s use of long takes after the war, partly linked to wanting to avoid the artifice of cinema when he worked on a concentration camp documentary. This was a fascinating presentation with a great deal crammed into 30 minutes. It was followed by Adrian Garvey on Claude Rains as a character actor in a leading role in Notorious, focusing on his ‘underplaying’ and his voice qualities. Alex Glancy followed this by looking at the working relationships between Hitchcock and Cary Grant, both men holding firm convictions about their work as director and star respectively. Alex’s discussion of Grant’s approach made an interesting comparison with the presentation on Claude Rains.
The programme was organised chronologically in terms of Hitchcock’s films so I had missed the silent period and ‘English Hitchcock’ on early Friday afternoon. The third session began on Saturday with Melanie Williams explaining how ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. I was particularly interested in Stage Fright (1950) which I managed to watch again before the Symposium. Melanie’s approach as a British Cinema scholar seemed germane to me since I feel strongly that this is a ‘British’ film, partly because of the range of British character actors featured. Richard Todd is a strange British actor for me. His sudden rise to stardom with The Hasty Heart (UK-US 1949) and his slow decline after The Dambusters (UK 1955) structured a career covering the period of ‘postwar British masculinity’ that has been worked on for a while but still offers new findings I think. Todd has never appealed to me but I learned plenty from the presentation to get me interested in looking at more of his work.
Strangers on a Train (1951) followed Stage Fright and we were offered some ideas about casting and performance by Alex Clayton. I was pleased to see this being tackled as I think casting is one of the least researched aspects of film studies. The background to this second Hitchcock film for Warner Bros. is fairly well known with the difficulty of developing a script from Hitchcock’s ideas about adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel being matched by similar difficulties in getting all the actors Hitchcock wanted. He did get Robert Walker from MGM, a casting often referred to as a ‘casting against type’, an idea which Alex explored in his presentation. But Hitchcock failed to get William Holden as the Guy Haines character and instead went back to Farley Granger who he had used in Rope. Finally, Ruth Roman was forced on him by Jack Warner to play the Senator’s daughter. It’s not difficult to see why Alex chose this film for his research. He questioned ideas about ‘miscasting’ and as in some of the other presentations, briefly discussed the idea of the commutation test first suggested by John O. Thompson. It’s difficult now to imagine William Holden playing Guy. Hitchcock perhaps got some of his casting ideas ‘wrong’ first time round but he was certainly successful in casting Walker – or should we instead state simply that it would have been a different film with Holden? Alex explained that his research has been restricted by the pandemic in the last year since he has not been able to access Hollywood archives or to shadow a casting agent which would, he hopes, give him another perspective. I look forward to what might eventually emerge from the project.
The third paper in the session took us in a slightly different direction when Tamar Jeffers McDonald explored the singing performances of Doris Day as Jo Conway in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Tamar offered both a detailed look at some of the nuances of Day’s singing and her emotional renderings of songs associated with the abduction of her son. She also explored Day’s dual persona of a singer who acts and an actor who can (really) sing. This was a very interesting paper and I wish I had seen the film more recently to have better appreciated some of Tamar’s analysis. I managed two papers in the fourth session. The first by David Greven offered ‘When the Villain Winces: Ray Milland and Villainous Empathy in Dial M for Murder (1954)’. In a way this seemed slightly out of place because the film preceded the Doris Day film. But then again it could also have followed the two papers dealing with Claude Rains and Cary Grant. I think this shows how interconnected these papers were. David did offer us some thoughts about how the comparison with Grant and the different performances of villainy from Rains, or in Grant’s case in Notorious at least ‘unsympathetic’ men, could be productive. I’m afraid I lost some of this presentation because I became distracted from my screen but I can see that there is something here. It would be interesting to include Stage Fright in which the usual suave Englishman type preferred by Hitchcock is played by Michael Wilding and the ‘villain’ is Richard Todd, a rather different type altogether.
Finally, I caught Lucy Bolton’s paper ‘Polished to perfection: the role of neatness and grooming in the performances of Tippi Hedren’. I had been looking forward to this as Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock film and I’ve always thought Tippi Hedren has been misrepresented as a performer. I wasn’t disappointed and I enjoyed learning things about Hedren that I didn’t know before or perhaps had forgotten. Lucy spoke about Hedren’s long career as a model and her professionalism on photo shoots and, as the title of her paper suggests, the way in which she could not only wear the clothes so effortlessly but also know how to use clothes and accessories to create meanings. I think I know almost every line of dialogue and every image of Marnie but now I’m determined to look at Hedren’s performance in The Birds again.
I enjoyed all the parts of the symposium that I was able to watch and I would like to thank Adrian Garvey and Vicky Lowe for putting it all together and all the panellists for their contributions which should prove useful and productive for all of us in the online audience.
One’s favourite film from a major artist such as Alfred Hitchcock tends to fluctuate over time; but for the last few years I have felt that this title is the most enjoyable and the finest of the productions directed by Hitchcock in Hollywood. It is a completely studio film, shot on the Paramount lot, though Hitchcock retained the copyright, so that now the film is part of the Universal collection.
The protagonist L. B.”Jeff” Jefferies is played by James Stewart, an actor who starred in several Hitchcock films and who, in the 1950s, brought a darker tone to his characterisations. The romantic interest in the film is Lisa Carol Fremont, played by Grace Kelly who seems to have been Hitchcock’s favourite blonde. The triple names of the two characters points to their social differences: “Jeff” is a professional photographer who believes his life should have the least amount of encumbrances and who revels in being politely uncouth whilst Lisa is a socialite and model, seen in a series of extravagant and stylish gowns and costumes.
The film opens with Jeff tied to a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg whilst on a photographic assignment for the magazine for which he works. He spends much of his time surveying the apartments that surround the courtyard in which his own is set: this is in the New York Greenwich Village. Jeff watches the people in the other apartments, even using binoculars and a powerful telephoto lens on his camera. He pays particular attention to the man in the apartment nearly opposite: Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). He comes to suspect that a crime has been committed and this investigation drives the plot forward.
The film is adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich for ‘Dime Detective’ (1942), a noted contributor to the genre of ‘pulp fiction’. Whilst the title is not a film noir it does contain some of the aspects of that genre. There are the triangular relationships, the seeker hero, the siren call (not a femme fatale) and the world of chaos that envelops the hero. And there is chiaroscuro in certain key scenes.
Hitchcock’s typical direction is well served by a team of talented craft people; a virtue that was enabled by Hitchcock’s preceding success. The setting of the courtyard was produced by set designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson. This careful construction is excellent in its dramatic scope and detail. The cinematography of Robert Burks exploits this setting and the interior of Jeff’s apartment with consummate skill; (think of North by Northwest). The colour palette is excellent, shot on Eastmancolor but printed on Technicolor stock in the original release. George Tomasini edits this material with real skill, following the conventional continuity of Hollywood but with excellent use of dramatic cuts and changes; (as later in Psycho). The music, by Franz Waxman, is sparse though the opening sets the tone really well. Most of the film’s soundtrack is sound from within the story world produced by the team of John Cope, sound recordist: Harry Lindgren sound recordist: Howard Beals sound editor and Loren L. Ryder sound recorder mixer. Finally the Hollywood veteran Edith Head designed the costumes.
James Stewart plays Jeff with aplomb, and his 1950s persona makes the obsession with the mystery convincing. Jeff is a voyeur, as are often the protagonist in Hitchcock films. But the voyeurism in Hitchcock films is overlaid with a sardonic humour and a reflexive stand point. Meanwhile Grace Kelly’s Lisa is a self-determining young woman with an assured response that is not true of all the heroines in Hitchcock’s Hollywood output. The other residents, with the exception of Thorwald, are mainly seen as objects of Jeff’s gaze., though circumstances revise his judgements on them. Burr’s Thorwald is an almost sad figure but dangerous. We also have to fine character performances with Thelma Ritter as Jeff’s nurse/Masseur and Jeff Corey as a friend in the NYPD. And there is a Hitchcock dog; less happy than in other films.
The tendency to critical presentation is, in part, due to the adaptation of the Woolrich story by John Mitchell Hayes. Watch carefully what we learn of Jeff’s observations; what he sees and what he does not see.
Like all outstanding films this has a richly constructed narrative, dramatic but also believable performances, beautifully crafted vision and sound and enough questions to retain interest until the final moments. Here, Hitchcock, with a touch of irony not frequently found in the Hollywood oeuvre, leaves the audience with one last ambiguous shot.
A screening as part of the Leeds Festival of Architecture paid tribute to the importance of design in the film. It was screened from a pretty good 35mm print, the original format, at the Hyde Park Picture House. It was accompanied by a short from the Canadian artist Guy Maddin, Accidence (2018). This is a nine minute film, apparently all in one long take. But it was shot in digital so likely there are some edits. The camera is trained on the frontage of a large block of flats; it opens in a mid-shot and slowly zooms out to a long shot. Then later it zooms slowly in to more or less the original mid-shot. Different actions take place in different apartments and characters move between them. One event, resulting in at least one likely death, seems the main action but I think it would take a second viewing to be sure of all that takes place. The main characters appear to be variations on those found in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, down to the small dog; [who happily survives in this version]. This film is clearly a riff and play on the famous 1954 feature. I think Hitchcock would have enjoyed it; I certainly did.
Christmas Day this year meant our annual treat at home with a digital projector, a screen and a DVD – this time of the last film by François Truffaut. I’d not seen it before and I thoroughly enjoyed it despite having had too many glasses of wine. I’ve watched sequences again before starting this post.
I realise with horror that it is 50 years since I watched my first Truffaut, Baisers volés (1968), and I’ve grown old with the director’s alter ego Antoine Doinel. Over the years I have been mainly a faithful fan but occasionally I’ve become impatient with what I’ve seen as Truffaut’s failure to leave an adolescent view of women behind (which may also be a fear that I’m just as guilty). In this last film, which was released only a few months before his tragically early death, there are still traces of his adolescent desires but they are explored in a playful narrative. Added to that, the film stars his then partner the terrific Fanny Ardant and mixes together the director’s ‘personal’ cinematic flourishes with his love for Hitchcock and film noir/pulp fiction – and touches on other ideas about genre. Truffaut’s script, co-written with long-term collaborators Suzanne Schiffman and Jean Aurel, is an adaptation of the ‘hard-boiled’ crime novel The Long Saturday Night (1962) by Charles Williams. It’s appropriate in a way that Truffaut’s final film returns him to the world of noir fiction associated with the idea of the polar in France. Wikipedia suggests that much more of Williams’ work is currently in print in France than in the US. Truffaut’s three earlier forays in adapting similar books are Tirez sur le pianiste (1960, based on a David Goodis novel), La mariée était en noir (1968, Cornell Woolrich) and La sirène du Mississippi (1969 again based on a Cornel Woolrich novel). These last two films both feature femmes fatales in the form of Jeanne Moreau and Catherine Deneuve. The difference in Vivement Dimanche! is that Fanny Ardant’s character is an investigator and we don’t think of her as possibly deceitful (though there are other women in the film who are). The film is also comic and almost surreal in certain scenes.
The film is set in Provence and begins with the murder of a duck hunter. We don’t get a good view of who pulls the trigger but suspicion immediately falls on Julien Vercel (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who has been hunting in the same area. He runs an estate agency (real estate) and on return from his hunting trip falls out with his secretary/receptionist/office manager Barbara (Fanny Ardant). The case against Vercel strengthens when it is revealed that the murdered man was sleeping with Vercel’s wife. As coincidences and connections pile up and more murders follow, Vercel is forced into hiding and Barbara becomes the effective investigator of the crimes.
Truffaut decided to make the film, shot by Néstor Almendros, in black and white. According to Serge Toubiana, in the introduction included on the DVD, this decision caused problems with French TV which co-funded the production and at the time was committed to ‘colour-only’ productions. Truffaut felt that colour on his earlier noirs in 1968/9 was a mistake and he was justified to a certain extent in that Vivement Dimanche! was commercially successful. He also urged Almendros to work quickly to create a ‘B movie look’. In doing so he seems to have adopted a certain view of Hollywood film noir (several ‘A movie’ noirs, especially from RKO, seem to have been viewed as ‘B’s). It also confuses Truffaut’s other aim which seems to have been to create a Hitchcockian ‘romance thriller’. This type of film is often defined by The 39 Steps (1935) or its later version, North by North West (1959). In these films the hero is falsely accused, goes on the run and is helped by a woman. The couple fall for each other, but not before they have fought and perhaps deceived each other, unsure of the other person’s motives. The 39 Steps was a black & white Hitchcock, as were most of his films until the late 1940s. North by Northwest was widescreen and colour. Vivement Dimanche! melds some typical Hitchcockian use of close-ups and noir shadows with the more pulpish action of 1940s noir. Barbara at first seems to be in dispute with Julien but later becomes the active protagonist positively helping him. Truffaut’s regular composer Georges Delerue provides a score that is effective for suspense and danger but also for ‘romance’.
In the polar (roughly defined as the French crime film), there is often a specific relationship between the criminal protagonist and the police Inspector who is trying to catch him. The Inspector is also often a rather eccentric character. In Truffaut’s film, the chief police officer Santelli has his comedy moment when he fails to control the tap (faucet) on a wash basin, an incident which seems to confirm his status. The other added ingredient in the film is an amateur theatre troupe. Barbara is a member of the troupe and as well as comic interludes her role in the current production provides her with a costume which she finds herself wearing during her sleuthing – and then being forced to cover up with a raincoat. Truffaut reportedly dreamed up the idea of the narrative when somebody said that images of Fanny Ardant in a raincoat in her previous Truffaut film La femme d’à côté (1981) reminded them of film noir.
I think what surprised me most about the film was Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance as Julien. It seems rather stolid and lacking either the elegance of a Cary Grant or the vulnerability of a Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcockian versions of a similar character. But what it does do (presumably deliberately) is to thrown the spotlight on Fanny Ardant who is elegant, beautiful, resourceful and light-hearted – combining all the qualities of both partners in the Hitchcockian couple. Truffaut is often said to have favoured weak men and strong women and to have argued that stories need to be built around women rather than men. In Vivement Dimanche! he seemed finally to have found his female hero. Perhaps it is significant that at the end of the film, the line which I always associate with Truffaut, “Women are magic!”, is given to the murderer. Earlier in the film, Julien is seen staring at his wife’s legs as she fusses with her stockings a reference back to the almost fetishistic interest shown by Truffaut’s male characters in women who are often older or wiser. Fanny Ardant in heels is also taller than Jean-Louis Trintignant and reminds us of the scene in Baisers volés when Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine Doinel walks with a woman who is a head taller. Other elements in the film linked to Truffaut’s personal interests include a popular cultural reference to pony-trap racing (trotting?) in Nice and a visit to the cinema which is showing Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory. Truffaut also repeats one of Godard’s questionable choices – asking his partner to play a prostitute, though in this case Fanny Ardant simply dresses appropriately in order to visit a red light district as part of her investigation.
The original novel was written in the 1960s and because of the choice of black & white and the avoidance of any modern(ist) architecture, I’m wondering if the film is meant to be set in the 1960s or to suggest the era. No doubt car enthusiasts could tell by the models on display. The Provence setting (IMDb suggests Hyères and Var as locations) makes me wonder whether some scenes were shot in the Victorine Studios in Nice (where Truffaut shot La nuit américaine in 1972) but research suggests that the studio was in a very bad way by 1983. Even so, some scenes feel like they are studio sets, including Julien’s ‘hideaway’ in the back of his business premises. This is one of the surreal elements in the film as Truffaut’s mise en scène and camera movement make it impossible to properly place how the back room leads into the front office (in other words it seems obvious that the police would search the building looking for him).
The plot extends the ‘long Saturday night’ or, at least, I think it does. The plotting is so loose that I wasn’t sure of the ‘story time’ or the geography of the events. The English-language title, Confidentially Yours seems almost meaningless. Despite this I think the film works very well as a stylish romp with Fanny Ardant excelling in her role. I must go soon to the previous Truffaut in which she stars as ‘the woman next door’.
Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, Les bonnes femmes, was released in Paris when he was approaching his 30th birthday. Not a success at the time, it now has a high reputation as one of his finest works and one of the very best of the early New Wave films. Outside France the critics were unkind and hampered by the conventions of the time. In some ways the film suffered like Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste in the same year. Both directors risked comedy mixed with tragedy and a combination of the street location photography with more stylised interiors. Chabrol was blessed with great performances by the four women playing the shopgirls at the centre of the narrative.
An indication of the problems the film faced came with the translations of the title. In some cases the English language title was ‘The Good Time Girls’ which gives the wrong impression. Sometimes it has been simply ‘The Girls’ which is OK, but perhaps a bit too open. I’m not sure the title translates, but if so, ‘The Good Girls’ is at least provocative without misleading.
The four young women work in an old-fashioned electrical goods shop in Central Paris, each standing at their own counter, watched over by an older Italian woman as the cashier and, in the back room, the proprietor, one of several peculiar men in the film who in this case seems to have strayed out of a German Expressionism film complete with pince-nez. His admonishment of Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) when she is 5 minutes late for work in her first week is very disturbing. There never seem to be any customers in the shop and the four shopgirls have to find ways of wasting time before they are allowed out for lunch. The narrative starts one night when the four women leave work and two of them are picked up by two older men who take them out on the town. This episode mainly features Jane (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont) and this sets the pattern in the film whereby each of the four has an episode in which they take the lead/become the focus of the action. Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Paul Gégauff have produced a highly structured film with alternating sequences inside and outside the shop. In the transitions from shop to cafe/zoo/music hall etc. inserts of almost documentary footage remind us of urban Paris. Jane is the comic character and Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) the sensible one already engaged to the most boring shopkeeper imaginable, Pierre. Ginette is the enigmatic one who shares a flat with Jane but disappears each evening and Jacqueline is the young woman with the most romantic notions of what a relationship might be. She’s the one who will suffer for her lack of awareness that she is a character in a Chabrol film – and one of his most Hitchcockian to boot.
The main criticism of the film at the time was that Chabrol was a cynical artist would lead the audience on and then produce the awful tragedy. Following the pattern of ‘oppositions’, the tragic scene follows on swiftly from a highly romantic sequence. I’ve seen criticisms that the film doesn’t have much plot but this is mainly a comment on the unconventional structure. We learn something about each of the young women and in one case what we learn becomes a completed narrative. The action is limited to around 30 hours from, one night to the next, followed by a daytime sequence which is presumably the next day. Finally, there is a coda which features a fifth young woman who we’ve never seen before, but who possibly appears to be repeating one of the stories of the other four. As several commentators have noted, the four young women do perhaps represent a composite of what faces young working-class women in France in 1960 – although it must be said that these are four uncommonly attractive women in different ways. The men they meet are all silly, repulsive or dangerous apart from the two ‘realist’ characters, the ‘delivery boy’ on a bicycle who regularly visits the shop and Jane’s boyfriend on leave from his army service. The film is a satire of sorts on the ambitions of young women and the dark urban world that is Paris. For me the delight in the film is in the performances. Bernadette Lafont is funny, sexy and so alive, but in a way the real star is Clotilde Joano whose career did not flourish like Lafont’s and Audran’s and who sadly died aged 42 in 1974. Lucille Saint-Simon stopped appearing in films a few years later after a number of low-budget horror films that took her to the UK, Spain and Italy. I’ve a feeling there is a research topic for a French film student in her career.
Stéphane Audran is relatively low-key in this film, but she would become Chabrol’s ‘muse’ and then his wife, appearing in significant films in Chabrol’s productive period in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like Saint-Simon and Joano, Audran was 28 in 1960, whereas Lafont was only 22 – but she had already appeared in Truffaut’s short Les mistons at 15 and in two of Chabrol’s earlier films as well as for Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, another Cahiers critic turned director.
The look of the film is terrific with marvellous compositions and framings by the great Henri Decaë who worked several times for Jean-Pierre Melville and Truffaut as well as Chabrol. I also enjoyed the music score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki which seems to match the shifting moods of the narrative very well. I was too young to catch Les bonnes femmes in cinemas and it now seems very difficult to find on DVD in the UK. I watched it again on an old videotape of A Channel 4 screening in the 1980s. I think it may now be available on Netflix and/or Amazon Prime. I did see several of Chabrol’s later 1960s and 1970s films in the cinema and perhaps the most evocative image in Les bonnes femmes is a long shot of a woodland scene with a priest leading a crocodile of small children through the trees. I knew immediately that something terrible would happen and I remembered a similar moment in Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970). Chabrol is an acquired taste perhaps, but I think I like his films best out of the Cahiers crowd. It also occurs to me now that, along with Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), Les bonnes femmes is a rare French New Wave film with four female leads – and shopgirls as central characters.
In the clip below, Rita is waiting to meet her future in-laws: