The Noir File: Six gems by the all-time master of suspense

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s weekly guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All the movies below are from the current schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).


Six by Alfred Hitchcock (1941-59) Friday, Nov. 23, 6:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. (3:30 a.m.- 3 p.m.)

Hitchcock was the movies’ all-time master of suspense – the supreme chronicler of wrong men on the run and notorious ladies in distress, of psychos and vertigo, of scenic spy chases and excruciating murder scenes, of shadows and strangers and suspicion, and most of all, of expert suspense movies, pulse-pounding pictures that got you on the hook fast, and kept you there until the last minute.

He was also the master of film noir, as this six film mini-marathon of movies proves. Dating from the heyday of both Hitchcock and classic noir (1941 to 1959), they’re films that you may have seen before, but that are always welcome for a fresh viewing. Hitchcock was one of the most punctilious, painstaking and brilliantly inventive of all major movie artists and that’s why you can see these pictures over and over. While you’re in the mood, you’ll probably also want to catch the opening of the new movie “Hitchcock,” Sacha Gervasi’s bio-thriller about the making of “Psycho,” with Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense himself.

Friday, Nov. 23, 6:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m.): “The Dick Cavett Show” (1972). Cavett interviews Hitch, for the release of “Frenzy.”

8 a.m. (5 a.m.): “Under Capricorn” (1949). In this somewhat stiff Australian-set period romance, Ingrid Bergman plays a reclusive alcoholic torn between bad-tempered husband Joseph Cotten and charming visitor Michael Wilding – with Margaret Leighton a scene-stealer as the obsessive housekeeper. One of the director’s rare commercial flops, “Under Capricorn” is still notable for its complex, long-take moving camera scenes (like the ones in “Rope”).

10 a.m. (7 a.m.): “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

Vera Miles and Henry Fonda star in “The Wrong Man,” which is based on a true incident.

11:45 a.m. (8:45 a.m.) “The Wrong Man” (1956). Hitchcock takes a real-life episode –the arrest and conviction of New York musician Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) for a robbery he didn’t commit – and squeezes out as much suspense as he does from his fictional thrillers. Co-scripted by playwright Maxwell Anderson; with Vera Miles and Harold J. Stone.

1:45 a.m. (10:45 a.m.): “North by Northwest” (1959). One of Hitchcock’s two great spy-chase thrillers (the other is “The 39 Steps”), “North by Northwest” follows a suave but beleaguered Manhattan advertising executive (Cary Grant), who’s mistaken for a spy who doesn’t exist, charged with a murder he didn’t commit, pursued by bad guys (James Mason, Martin Landau) whose machinations bewilder him. Oh and he’s involved with a blonde beauty (Eva Marie Saint) who may want him dead. And then there’s that pesky crop-dusting plane “dustin’ where there ain’t no crops.” One of the best, most typical and most beautifully made Hitchcocks. Ingeniously scripted by Ernest Lehman.

4:15 p.m. (1:15 p.m.): “Suspicion” (1941).

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Dial M for Murder” (1954).

Sunday, Nov. 18

2 p.m. (11 a.m.): “Casablanca” (1942, Michael Curtiz).

Tuesday, Nov. 20

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “Bonjour Tristesse” (1957, Otto Preminger). Smooth as silk and cool as champagne, Preminger’s adaptation of the young French writer Françoise Sagan’s cynical novel, focuses on a brainy young belle (Jean Seberg), whose intense relationship with her playboy father (David Niven) is disrupted by his perceptive fiancée (Deborah Kerr) – a clash that leads to darker currents and conflicts. Seberg’s chilly performance here inspired her role several years later in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.”

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In ‘The Lady Vanishes,’ Hitch pushes form to near perfection

The Lady Vanishes/1938/GB Pictures/96 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood are an utterly beguiling English couple.

In “The Lady Vanishes,” his marvelous 1938 mystery classic set aboard a train racing though the Balkans, Alfred Hitchcock pushes the romantic-comedy-thriller form to near perfection. It’s one of the most purely entertaining movies he ever made, and it can be watched over and over again with no diminution of pleasure.

Arguably funnier than Hitchcock’s other train classics – “The 39 Steps” (1935), “Strangers on a Train” (1951) and “North By Northwest” (1959) – “The Lady Vanishes” offers one of Hitchcock’s greatest assemblies of characters and actors: Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Linden Travers, Catherine Lacey, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford.

Hitchcock loved trains, in life as well as in his movies. In “The Lady Vanishes” we can see why. Though shot mostly on a sound stage, this locomotive is somehow supremely convincing – with its cozy yet menacing cars, jiggling tables, rushing train-sounds, compartments full of strangely cool or deceptively amiable passengers and that wonderful dining car, where so much tea is sipped, so much suspense generated and where the final crackerjack gun battle takes place.

Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (“The Rake’s Progress,” “Night Train to Munich,” “Green for Danger”) wrote the script from a novel called “The Wheel Spins,” by Ethel Lina White. But the Gilliat-Launder stamp, a special brand of breezy and irreverent class-puncturing humor, is all over this film, almost as much as Hitchcock’s flair for tension, perverse romance, dark humor and similar irreverence toward class.

“The Lady Vanishes” offers one of Hitchcock’s greatest assemblies of actors.

The ingenious story is in line with brainy mysteries by writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. What happens? A congenial old lady named Miss Froy (played by the irresistible Dame May Whitty) disappears from the train and, when her pretty and saucy fellow passenger Iris (Margaret Lockwood) tries to find her, everyone who saw Miss Froy denies she existed.

Only Michael Redgrave as Gilbert, an amorous young musicologist, believes her. As Iris and Gilbert put their nimble wits together, love and melody and mystery bloom, even as the vanished lady remains peculiarly elusive. The train’s odd-lot passengers – including a suave doctor (Paul Lukas), a philandering politico and his inamorata (Cecil Parker and Linden Travers), a nun in high heels (Catherine Lacey) and those ineffable cricket fans Caldicott and Charters (played by the immortal Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford) – keep denying Miss Froy was ever there. Things get progressively stranger, faster, funnier and more dangerous.

Besides human passengers, a magician’s bunnies are aboard this mystery-filled train.

If Hitchcock loved trains, he makes us fall in love with this one, too – and with many of the people aboard, including some of the villains. And non-villains like Caldicott and Charters, who became so popular that they began making appearances, as the same characters, in other films (“Night Train to Munich” and “Crook’s Tour”). And Miss Froy, who looks a bit like Agatha Christie, or the way we envision Miss Marple to look. And of course Gilbert and Iris, an intrepid, utterly beguiling, English couple if ever there was one.

As I said, “The Lady Vanishes” is one movie classic that most audiences are sure to enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Maybe what you need is a long train ride in the Balkans.

“The Lady Vanishes” plays on the big screen this Wednesday, March 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica.

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Cinematheque honors Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann

You can always count on the American Cinematheque to give noiristas some love.

The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is running Suspense Account: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, featuring his Technicolor spectaculars, such as “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and “To Catch a Thief.” Also showing are suspense thrillers “Notorious,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Suspicion,” “Spellbound,” “Saboteur” and “Psycho.” Now under way, the series runs through June 9.

Additionally, from June 23-30, the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica will host A Centennial Tribute to Composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), one of cinema’s most brilliant and influential artists. The series will screen “Cape Fear,” On Dangerous Ground,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Vertigo,” “Obsession,” “Marnie,” “Psycho,” and “Hangover Square.”

Check the schedule for more details. The Egyptian Theatre is at 6712 Hollywood Blvd. The Aero Theatre is at 1328 Montana Ave. General admission is $11; members pay $7.

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