Flattery, Part 2: 15 More Hitchcock Homages

I’ve been getting feedback about my recent list of Hitchcock-inspired films, which you can see here. People seem to like it, and they mention other “Hitchcockian” movies they like, so I decided to expand on the original list with 15 more titles. These films are as good as the ones on the first list, and they extend from 1943 to 2012. Again, no supernatural horror or sci-fi, and no remakes of actual Alfred Hitchcock films. I think it’s safe to say that all 15 directors here were at least partially inspired by The Master.

1) THE SEVENTH VICTIM (Mark Robson, 1943): Back in the 1940s, a wonderful B-movie producer named Val Lewton made 9 terrific little thrillers in the Hitchcock tradition. He gave 3 unknown directors (Robert Wise, Jacques Tourneur, and Robson) their first break, and all 3 went on to famous careers. The 9 gems included CAT PEOPLE (1942) and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942), but this one is my fave. It also doesn’t break my “no horror” rule–the others I mentioned deal with the supernatural, whereas this one is set in the real world. A young woman (Kim Hunter) goes to NYC looking for her missing sister, only to find a weird trail of clues leading to a very weird group of people. Marketed as a horror movie, it’s really a suspense thriller in the “woman in distress” vein. And it’s just gorgeous. You should see all 9 of Lewton’s movies, but pay particular attention to this one; its grotesque vibe will stay with you for days.

Phantom Lady DVD2) PHANTOM LADY (Robert Siodmak, 1944): Hitchcock had two important women in his professional life: his wife and frequent collaborator, writer Alma Reville, and his personal assistant, Joan Harrison. Ms. Harrison briefly left Hitch’s employ to produce this moody, shadowy B-movie, and she took her vast knowledge of Hitchcock with her. The result is a film The Master himself could have directed. An innocent man (Alan Curtis) is arrested and jailed for murder, and his faithful secretary (Ella Raines) goes all Nancy Drew in an attempt to prove his innocence. To do so, she must track down the mysterious woman of the title, the only witness who can clear him. Based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, this little gem has all the style we’ve come to associate with you-know-who.

3) SUDDEN FEAR (David Miller, 1952): A successful playwright (Joan Crawford) marries a mentally unstable actor (Jack Palance) and lives to regret it. The setting is San Francisco, which has never looked more sinister (except in VERTIGO), and Crawford and Palance deliver solid, Oscar-nominated performances. But the real star here is David Miller, who also directed a similar thriller, MIDNIGHT LACE (1960), with Doris Day as the woman in danger. I could have picked either movie for this list, but SUDDEN FEAR is available on DVD and MIDNIGHT LACE isn’t. Watch them both when you get a chance.

Diabolique poster4) DIABOLIQUE (Georges Clouzet, 1955): Okay, here’s the exception in my list of films inspired by Hitchcock–this is actually a film that inspired him. Based on a novel by French authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, this French smash-hit scared the hell out of the entire world in 1955. Shot in stark black-and-white, with naturalistic performances from the cast, it was unlike anything most people had seen before. At a remote boys’ boarding school in rural France, the brutal, drunken, two-timing headmaster’s nervous mouse of a wife (Vera Clouzet, the director’s wife) and his brassy blond mistress (the divine Simone Signoret) decide to commit the perfect crime and do away with the bastard. They drown him in a bathtub (a horrifying sequence) and dump his body in the school’s swimming pool. Then the body disappears and strange things begin to happen. It seems the headmaster isn’t dead, after all–or maybe he’s come back from the grave. This shocking film caused Hitch to do three things–he optioned the authors’ next book and filmed it (VERTIGO); he used Clouzet’s low-budget, black-and-white realism in a subsequent film, PSYCHO; and he borrowed its very successful ad campaign gimmick, which asked audiences to see it from the beginning and not to disclose the plot to other potential patrons. You must see this movie! (And skip the awful American remake with Sharon Stone and Isabelle Adjani.)

Scream of Fear poster5) SCREAM OF FEAR (Seth Holt, 1961): This thriller was from the famous Hammer Horror factory in Britain, but it isn’t a horror movie. It’s a tidy suspense story about a rich, wheelchair-bound young woman with a history of emotional problems (Susan Strasberg) who returns home after years away in boarding school to find her beloved father missing and his icy new wife (Ann Todd) insisting he’s “away on business.” The father’s best friend, a handsome local doctor (Christopher Lee), backs her up in this. The isolated clifftop mansion on the French Riviera is the perfect setting for this creepy tale–especially when Strasberg begins to catch brief glimpses of her father’s corpse in various rooms. She enlists the aid of the handsome chauffeur (Ronald Lewis), and they go looking for the truth. This nifty little shocker was one of about a million PSYCHO-like movies released just after that worldwide hit, and it’s one of the better ones. It also features a DIABOLIQUE-inspired swimming pool and a wonderful surprise ending. Check it out.

6) CAPE FEAR (J. Lee Thompson, 1962): A very bad man (Robert Mitchum) is released from prison and begins to stalk the very good lawyer (Gregory Peck) who put him there. Based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, this relentless thriller has an interesting setting: Savannah, Georgia and the nearby Cape Fear River. As the stalking accelerates, Peck decides to fight back, if only to protect his lovely wife (Polly Bergen) and teen daughter (Lori Martin), both of whom are also targets of Mitchum’s wrath…and his lust. This is a very intense movie with then-daring sexual implications–check out the scene where little Martin is trapped in an empty schoolhouse with the psycho, and the later scene with him and Bergen on a houseboat. Eek! Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) has gone on record saying that he deliberately imitated Hitchcock. He did a splendid job–better than Martin Scorcese did in the 1991 remake–and they got Hitch’s favorite composer, the great Bernard Herrmann, to do the musical score. (The music is so effective that Scorcese simply re-used it in 1991.) Don’t miss it.

Bunny Lake Is Missing poster7) BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (Otto Preminger, 1965): Preminger, that master of the straightforward, unadorned style, changes tack here (as he did in 1944’s LAURA) and piles on the creepy atmosphere in true Hitch fashion. A young American mother who’s just arrived in London (Carol Lynley) reports that her 4-year-old daughter, nicknamed Bunny, has vanished from a daycare nursery school. The police check out her story, but there seem to be holes in it. No one at the school remembers ever seeing the child, nor does anyone else in England. The woman’s brother (Keir Dullea) comes to her aid, but they have trouble convincing the Inspector in charge (Laurence Olivier) that Bunny even exists! Lynley is an unwed mother–something unheard of in those days–and she has a history of mental instability. Olivier searches for the truth and Lynley searches for her daughter, leading to a shocking conclusion. London has rarely looked as dark and shadowy as it does here, and most of the scenes take place at night, with a rogue’s gallery of great Brit character actors (Noël Coward, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie) as sinister suspects. (Historical side note: This frank film caused controversy in 1965 for its mature content–one year after Hitchcock’s MARNIE did the same thing. A lot of theater chains refused to show it, and it’s one of the films that led to the establishing of the MPAA rating system (G, PG, R, NC-17) that is still in effect today. Now it looks fairly tame, but it really raised eyebrows at the time. Go figure!)

8) COMA (Michael Crichton, 1978): Sometimes mistaken for sci-fi, this is actually a perfectly plausible (and perfectly frightening) medical thriller. Bestselling author Crichton (THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, JURASSIC PARK) went behind the camera to bring his friend Robin Cook’s bestselling novel to the screen, and he clearly channeled The Master to do it. Patients are mysteriously dying at Boston Memorial Hospital, and a brave woman doctor (Genevieve Bujold) investigates. Soon, she’s running for her life. This is just one Hitchcock sequence after another, start to finish, and very well done, too. Bujold is marvelous, and she’s supported by a fine cast that includes Richard Widmark, Rip Torn, Elizabeth Ashley (who must have studied Judith Anderson’s performance in REBECCA), and a very young Michael Douglas as her love interest. A fun thriller for a rainy day.

Manhunter poster9) MANHUNTER (Michael Mann, 1986): Thomas Harris’s RED DRAGON is the scariest novel I’ve ever read, followed by its sequel, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Both books were turned into great movies, but I chose this one because SOTL (with 5 Oscars including Best Picture of 1991) is much better known. Before SOTL there was MANHUNTER (the generic title was forced on the filmmakers by the studio execs, who thought RED DRAGON sounded like a kung-fu movie!). A traumatized former FBI agent (William L. Petersen) is asked to return to his job to help track a serial killer who’s taking out entire families. His special talent (empathizing with the psychos) is needed–but he doesn’t want to do it. He’s the guy who captured the notorious Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), who nearly killed him and ate him for dinner (literally). Now, he has to face the darkness again. Mann is one of the few true stylists working in American film today (see also David Fincher, below), and I think Hitch himself would have admired this dark, creepy tale. A genuinely frightening film.

10) MALICE (Harold Becker, 1993): A mysterious doctor (Alec Baldwin) disrupts the lives of a nice college dean (Bill Pullman) and his wife (Nicole Kidman) when he becomes a lodger in their home. And there’s a serial rapist on the loose. Coincidence? Hmm. Becker also directed the excellent SEA OF LOVE (1989), but I like this one better. Lots of twists and turns before the final fadeout. The three leads are great, and the fine supporting cast includes Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Gallagher, Anne Bancroft, George C. Scott, and a very young Gwyneth Paltrow as a sexy co-ed. Wonderful suspense.

The Pelican Brief DVD11) THE PELICAN BRIEF (Alan J. Pakula, 1993): Like COMA (above), this film is based on a bestselling novel (by John Grisham), and it’s one stunning Hitch sequence after another. Late, great writer/director Pakula (KLUTE, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, PRESUMED INNOCENT) really knew how to present a paranoid thriller, and this one is way above average. A Tulane law student (Julia Roberts) accidentally stumbles on the truth behind the assassinations of two Supreme Court justices, and now the whole world is after her. Her only ally is a famous Washington DC journalist (Denzel Washington) who wants to help her find out who’s behind the conspiracy–a conspiracy that goes all the way up to the White House. Run, Julia! I’ve watched this movie several times, and I always marvel at its nearly perfect construction. A real winner.

Primal Fear poster12) PRIMAL FEAR (Gregory Hoblit, 1996): The last of 4 films here with the word “fear” in the title. (What’s up with that?) A publicity-hungry Boston lawyer (Richard Gere) defends a shy, stuttering, angelic-looking altar boy (Edward Norton in his film début) on charges that he brutally murdered a very popular bishop, who may or may not have been abusing him. The ADA on the case is the lawyer’s ex (Laura Linney), who’s convinced of the kid’s guilt and determined to convict. A psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) examines the boy and makes a surprise discovery–there seem to be multiple personalities inside him. It all ends up in a courtroom, where…well, see for yourself. Hoblit also directed KISS THE GIRLS (1997) and DON’T SAY A WORD (2002), so he’s one of the very few recent directors keeping the Hitchcock style going. This one has excellent performances, too–Gere has never been better, and the others match him.

13) MURDER BY NUMBERS (Barbet Schroeder, 2002): Schroeder directed SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (1992), which could have made my list, but I prefer this one. For one thing, it has a great deal in common with Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948). Based on the same notorious story as that film (the 1924 Loeb/Leopold case), it pits two genius teens (Michael Pitt and Ryan Gosling), who kill for kicks, against a determined detective (Sandra Bullock), who knows what they’ve done but has to prove it before she becomes their next victim. I like Schroeder’s clean, straightforward style–he doesn’t load it up with a lot of tricks. A good, solid chiller.

Zodiac poster14) ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007): The only true crime story I’ve included, but a worthy exception. After all, Hitchcock himself made THE WRONG MAN (1957), and that’s a true story. This is about the long search for the titular serial killer who plagued the San Francisco Bay area in the 1960s and ’70s. One local journalist (a political cartoonist for the SF Chronicle) becomes obsessed with the clues the killer keeps mailing to his paper, and the case takes over his life, nearly destroying him. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrific as the cartoonist, and Mark Ruffalo (as a police detective) and Robert Downey, Jr. (as the famous op-ed journalist who’s receiving Zodiac’s correspondence) are also excellent. This film is here because, like COMA and PELICAN BRIEF (see above), it contains several long sequences that are pure Hitchcock. Watch the scene where Gyllenhaal goes to the home of a potential “witness” and is invited down to his basement. Or the scene where a stranded motorist (Ione Skye) with a baby accepts a late-night ride on a deserted highway. Or the scene where…well, you get the point. Fincher makes the whole experience riveting, and it has a haunting, dreamlike quality that’s difficult to shake. This may be the best film on my list.

15) GONE (Heitor Dhalia, 2012): The most recent fim on my list was recommended to me by another Hitch fan, so I took a look. Brazilian director Dhalia is new in Hollywood, but he should be welcome there. This is a fairly standard “fem-jep” tale about a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) who may or may not be imagining things. She claims to have been abducted and held by a loony creep 2 years ago, escaping with her life, but the police never believed her because nothing in her story could be verified. Now, in the present, her younger sister (Emily Wickersham) suddenly vanishes–and she’s convinced her tormentor has returned. Once again, nobody believes her, so she takes matters into her own hands. There are lots of stylish touches in this “dark and stormy night” thriller that actually ends up on…a dark and stormy night!

I’m sure you noticed that I’ve listed fewer titles from recent years than from the more distant past. That’s because I can’t find many good thrillers these days. Hollywood currently seems to be catering to an exclusive audience of 14-year-olds, and we’re up to our necks in cheesy horror, gross-out comedies, and comic book superheroes. (As I write this, MAN OF STEEL is #1 at the box office.) Films for grown-ups are few and far between, and good, intelligent thrillers for grown-ups are a very rare treat. Here’s hoping that the trend will soon swing back toward more sophisticated filmmaking, and more films inspired by the giants of the past–especially Alfred Hitchcock. In the meantime, enjoy these recommendations.