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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day (and Suspicion follow up)

This is my first father's day since my pop passed away and it's a strange feeling-- in all honesty it used to be possibly the most stressed holiday for me since I would race around trying to find him a present he'd like or need, it wasn't because he was particularly picky or a bad gift receiver it's because it's impossible to find the right present for someone who means a lot to you but because you're both grown men you don't really show it.  It's easier to give mom a hug than dad-- and that's why dad's are often put on the back of the bus when it comes to recognition.

Who do football players say hi to when they're on camera?  Mom.
Who do little kids ask for when they get scared?  Mom.
I could go on.

Dad is always the background character, but he's the guy who stands up for you when times are tough, the guy who is your corner man when you're in the ring, the guy who doesn't ask for thanks and will more often than not remind you to call or visit your mom never mentioning that he wouldn't mind a visit either.

So today, Father's Day, take a minute to really say thanks to your dad-- you never know if this might be your last chance.


Last week I suggested that some of you interested in learning some key elements to storytelling watch Hitchcock's SUSPICION so we could explore a misfire of a master storyteller-- if you haven't seen it, go and watch it and then come back here, I'll wait.

Major Spoilers ahead so if you haven't seen it you've been warned.

I'm not going to recap the story much, you've seen it, but essentially we have a meek and timid woman who is attracted to an outgoing and popular man who shows enough interest in her that they soon marry, only to discover that this man might just be planning to kill her to collect her inheritance.

Let's see what works in this film;
1. The casting of Joan Fontaine.  No one could play this part better.  She was (and is-- I believe she's still with us) a beautiful woman who was able to project a frailty which verges on near nervous breakdown throughout the film.  You can believe that she would be shocked that someone as charming as Johnny would be interested in her.

2. The comedy relief of Nigel Bruce.  Comedy relief gets a bad rap but sometimes it's needed.  His character is warm with a bit of charm and he comes a sounding board for the Fontaine character as well as being able to demonstrate that Johnny can't be all bad if he is his friend.

The element Hitch is trying to get through the whole film is the doubt that Fontaine feels for Johnny, convinced he's a possible murderer, then dismissing her thoughts as crazy.  When Johnny and Nigel Bruce leave on a business trip to the site of some dangerous cliff-side properties Fontaine is convinced (as they play a game like Scrabble) that something bad will happen when her tiles spell out Murder  -- it's a clever and subtle way to show her growing concern.

When they return safely-- she is relieved, then Nigel begins to tell her how he was lucky to survive a near death experience and her relief changes back to doubt-- only to learn that Johnny actually saved his life and the weight is off her shoulders once again.

The film follows this consistent method of building up circumstantial evidence against Johnny and then revealing that maybe he's not quite as bad as he seems.

When Johnny and Nigel go to Paris to celebrate the life saving event, Fontaine is once again thrown a loop when she learns that Nigel died in a drinking accident at a pub while on vacation, in the company of a friend.

What doesn't work--
1. The casting of Cary Grant as Johnny.  Grant is a versatile actor who could play comedy as well as drama, never given the credit he deserved as an actor, the studio would never allow him to play a murderer so if the film had played its course that could have worked to Hitchcock's advantage, but he relented and Grant is revealed to be just a misunderstood slightly tragic figure at the end of the film which seems hackneyed and thrown together.

The original ending Hitch wanted was for Grant to toss Fontaine out of the speeding car at the film's end and then mail the letter we saw her writing to her mother earlier in the scene.  The letter stating emphatically that Grant is out to kill her.  

The lesson here is if you are afraid to shock convention then you should rethink your casting-- and this goes for comic artists as well-- your characters should think and act like real people but they shouldn't be so conforming that the ending is spelled out right from the beginning.  You should never tell a story the way you think someone wants it to be told, you should be true to yourself and tell it the way you want to.

Had Hitch stuck to his guns and kept his original ending this could have been a great film.  As it stands it's a solid entry in his film legacy but far from the masterpiece it could have been.

For examples of Hitchcock films that absolutely work, both storewise and casting check out;

1. Shadow of a Doubt (1942) which I believe was Hitch's way of correcting Suspicion.  It's essentially the same story.
2. Rear Window (1954)
3. Notorious (1946)
4. Vertigo (1958) Confusing as all get out-- but there's a lot of story in there
5. North by Northwest (1959) A bit too polished but a really good movie.
6. To Catch a Thief (1956) The best Batman film ever made that doesn't actually feature Batman.
7. Psycho