That Blackmail should be Hitch’s first talkie is tacit in the film’s very title: a blackmailer’s irony would be difficult to capture solely through facial expressions and intertitles. The opening scene, however, initially seems a preamble to a silent film. It commences with typical Hitchcockian energy, a hustle-and-bustle approach that presages Rich and Strange or North by Northwest.
From the outset of The Wrong Man, it’s evident that this is a very different kind of Hitchcock film. Which turns out to be both good and bad. For one thing, Hitch’s beloved cameo appearance is absent for the first and only time in his oeuvre. Instead, he sets the stage by walking toward the camera as a brightly backlit silhouette in a dark alley, informing us that unlike any of his other pictures, this one is a true story. Whereupon the ensuing explanatory note tells us that this tale is “stranger than the strangest fiction.” In this stark docudrama, in other words, Hitch’s characteristic flair for the melodramatic and suspenseful take a back seat to realism. The result is a film that becomes a bit clinical at times, dragging from event to event along a timeline as the wheels of justice churn ahead slowly. Nevertheless, as audiences had come to expect from Hitchcock, The Wrong Man exhibits a trenchant eye for details of both the visual and the verbal kind.
Suspicion is an important element of the movie-watching experience. We engage with the plot by developing reasoned pre-conclusions about how events will unfold. We make assumptions before the truth is revealed. But for Lina Aysgarth (Joan Fontaine), a wealthy ingenue gripped by a growing fear that her playboy husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) is planning to murder her for her life insurance policy, suspicion is synonymous more with the terror of presumed inevitability than with the anticipation of knowing. Suspicion, however, cautions us to be ever mindful of all eventualities when solving a case.
Although movie gearheads might remember Rope as the first Hitchcock film shot in Technicolor, its more important contribution to the director’s oeuvre stems from the nature of the murder it depicts. The strangulation of David Kentley (Dick Hogan) at the hands of two university chums, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger), has no motive. This killing is fundamentally unlike the crime of passion in The Paradine Case or even the murder swapping in Strangers on a Train. The young men in Rope are driven to the act not by greed, lust, ambition, anger, or insanity, but by mere pleasure-seeking. To them, murder is an aesthetic end in itself.
Going into Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, one might expect a potboiler on the level of his 19th-century period-piece turdpile Under Capricorn. The Master of Suspense and screwball comedy? Can there be any greater incongruity between a filmmaker and his subject? Yet this film calls into question that truism we were all taught in elementary-school science class about oil and water not mixing. Sure, it’s hardly It Happened One Night or Bringing Up Baby, but I’m puzzled about some of the censure levied against this surprisingly intelligent, smartly penned, and convincingly acted screwball comedy—especially given the ongoing accolades bestowed on the pretentious, hammily acted, feminist schlockfests Adam’s Rib and His Girl Friday.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound commits the cardinal artistic sin of trying so hard to tell us something important that it tells us nothing insightful or interesting. It puzzles me why a director who generally understood better than any other the power of the camera to show rather than tell would want to pontificate about the use of psychoanalysis to investigate repressed memories as if he were delivering a thesis at a symposium of mental-health professionals. The film constitutes little more than dime-store Freudian pedantry.