Spellbound vs. Laura – Two creepy movies for October

First, an apology/disclaimer… there WILL be classic literature reviews coming soon!!  I often watch movies/TV in batches, so this is one of those phases for me.  🙂

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound is a twisted tale of the romance between an ambitious young doctor (Ingrid Bergman) and her unlikely boss (Gregory Peck).  The two work as psychoanalysts in the same mental health facility, and in spite of the office gossip, Constance finds herself falling in love for the first time.  Anthony, on the other hand, begins to show signs of mental distress, haunted by fears he cannot remember nor explain.  When Anthony becomes implicated in a crime, Constance – terrified of losing him – decides to apply all her knowledge on mental health to try to discern the truth from his scattered memories.

Laura (1944)

Laura (Gene Tierney), a charismatic young businesswoman, is found dead in her apartment one morning, brutally shot in the face.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrives on the scene and begins to question everyone who was close to Laura, from her shady fiance Shelby (Vincent Price) to her jealous mentor Waldo (Clifton Webb).  From getting to know these various characters and reading Laura’s letters and diary, Mark begins to form a picture of the obsessions which surround her – obsessions which begin to affect him personally.

The Weaknesses of Strong Women

These two films were released within a year of each other, and, perhaps as a result, they share many themes.

The one which stood out to me most was the fatal flaw in both of the “strong” female protagonists.  Dr. Constance Petersen’s biggest weakness is not her sacrificing her career to Anthony (though that is hardly commendable in this plot’s context); rather, her biggest weakness is sacrificing her identity for him – identity in both the literal and metaphorical senses.  Laura, also an ambitious and driven woman, will not distance herself from toxic relationships, and she suffers for it.

Generational Divide

I was struck by the portrayal of the older generation between these two films.  In Laura, the older gentleman Waldo is portrayed as a witty but arrogant fop, lovable in his quaint manners but questionable in the pursuit of his young protege.  By contrast, in Spellbound Hitchcock brings us the wonderful character of Dr. Brulov, Constance’s mentor and an honorable father figure.  Both types exist in the real world, of course.

The Better Story?

Spellbound is a much more chilling movie; Laura has far more humor and less macabre.  If you are looking for thrills, you’ll find Spellbound to be fairly adequate, if not so unnerving as Vertigo.

That said, of the two movies I preferred Laura by a wide margin.  Spellbound is disappointing in that the crux of the story – could you fall in love with a murderer? – is not developed to the extent that it drives home a point or even the question.  For all its failures as a thriller, Laura is a hardboiled who-dunnit that will keep you guessing to the end, and its message/moral remains intact and fully developed. 

Vertigo and How to Steal a Million – Two short reviews (spoiler-free)

Recently I saw these two classic films for the first time: Vertigo (1958) and How to Steal a Million (1966).  On the surface, they have really nothing in common, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to compare and contrast them.

Vertigo


Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock film, considered by many reviewers to be his masterpiece.  James Stewart plays a retired detective, Scottie Ferguson, who is commissioned by his friend to follow said friend’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, to determine if she’s become possessed with the spirit of her great-grandmother.  Matters become weirder when Scottie finds himself falling head over heels for the chilling but attractive Madeleine, who also seems to have a thing for him.  Scottie, unfortunately, suffers from vertigo and a fear of heights, which threaten to jeopardize his task and Madeleine’s life.

Let me just say I have mixed feelings about Hitchcock films.  This is how I’d rank the ones I’ve seen so far (best to worst):

  1. Rebecca
  2. Strangers on a Train
  3. The Wrong Man
  4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  5. Vertigo
  6. North by Northwest
  7. The Birds
As you can see, the popular ones I don’t care for very much.
Vertigo actually started out very promising, but somewhere around the halfway mark, it got very slow and tedious.  The plot is predictable and, at times, unduly macabre.  As usual with Hitchcock, I did find the cinematography to be stunning – with shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco as they looked in the 50s – but it wasn’t enough to carry the film through.  There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend, with an unlikely romance and one or two gaping plot holes.

How to Steal a Million

Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn?  That was all I needed to know.

How to Steal a Million follows an art forger and his loyal daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) who will do what it takes to keep her scoundrelly dad out of jail.  That includes staging a faux burglary to prevent a particular sculpture from being tested for authenticity. Enter Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), who claims to be an expert burglar.  With great reluctance, he agrees to take on Nicole’s challenge and break into a high-security museum to “steal” her father’s own statue and save the family honor.
This was the dumbest, cutest, cringiest movie I’ve seen in a long time. (I guess that’s what rom-coms are?  I don’t usually watch that genre.)  O’Toole manages to make a creepy role extremely charming, and Hepburn’s cute innocence outshines even her chic wardrobe (designed by Givenchy and made rather a big deal of).  I’m pretty sure nobody except these two could play such lovable dorks.
As it is, what starts out as a cute comedy turns into a long-winded, tedious ordeal, during the greater part of which the two are trapped in a broom closet and exchanging risque jokes.  Again, rom-coms aren’t exactly my thing, so I was disappointed when the plot kind of fizzled out in the second half.

Lessons Learned

Here’s my takeaways from these two films:
  • If you’re going to make a movie – or write a book, for that matter – that is really unbelievable, your best outlet is comedy.  Tragedies have to be plausible for me to care.
  • Great actors/actresses can make bad films watchable.
  • A story should never start out more exciting and engaging than it finishes up.
  • Sometimes Amazon reviewers and I don’t see eye-to-eye.
  • I should probably stop watching Alfred Hitchcock films (but I know I won’t).
Thoughts…recommendations?  I’d be curious to hear if any of you like Vertigo.  It’s the kind of film where I at least understand its popularity.  I just didn’t care for it personally.  How to Steal a Million is pure fluff and I’ll probably watch it again, to my great chagrin.  

The Men Who Knew Too Much (and Not Enough)

You invariably have some expectations when watching a thriller.  Though I haven’t seen a lot of this genre, it’s similar enough to mystery that I expect something.  I expect to be scared, and I expect to care about someone in the film.  To a degree, all three of these accomplished that.  Some more than others.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man trailer 02
The Wrong Man (1956).  
Christopher Emmanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda) gets arrested for a series of crimes he did not commit.  5/5 stars.

The Wrong Man was the most interesting and worthwhile.  I’m biased in that I’m drawn towards any film with Kafkaesque qualities.  Henry Fonda’s character is essentially Josef K. from The Trial, albeit a more sympathetic and family-man type of guy.  The plot is based on a true story, in which circumstantial evidence and other issues render the suspect, Balestrero, practically guilty until proven innocent.

There is something inherently frightening about “due process” going horribly wrong, affecting not just Balestrero but his wife Rose and two sons.  Hitchcock focuses a good deal on Rose, who becomes completely overwhelmed by her husband’s suffering.  It is vaguely reminiscent of the psychological effects of the lengthy court case in Bleak House.  I wish that the film had depicted the aftermath of her story, instead of printing it on the screen, but probably that was for dramatic effect.

I certainly recommend The Wrong Man, especially to Kafka fans.  It’s suitable for most ages (young children might find it boring).

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Dr. and Mrs. McKenna (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) find their vacation turning into a nightmare after they meet four mysterious fellow travelers in Morocco.  3/5 stars.

The theme of female psychological reaction reappears in The Man Who Knew Too Much – however, it is worth emphasizing that this story is purely fictional.  Stewart as Ben McKenna gives an excellent performance (his best, out of his films I’ve seen) as a middle-class dad who suddenly has to go up against world-class assassins.  Day also is well cast as Jo McKenna and sings her signature song “Que Sera, Sera.”

That said, I didn’t care for the way these characters were written.  They leave their son in the care of total strangers, probably a 50s-ism that is nonetheless disturbing.  There is also a scene in which Ben makes his wife take a sedative, because he predicts she will become hysterical.  He doesn’t suggest she take the pill; he refuses to tell her critical information unless she takes it.  Again, not necessarily unusual for the era, but not appropriate for very young/undiscerning viewers, either.

The plot is reasonably good and pretty suspenseful.  It centers heavily on the theme that familiar places and people may not be as safe as they appear.  Recommended, with the above reservations.

The Woman in Black (1989).  A young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, goes on a business trip to a house haunted by a bitter, mourning-clad specter (Pauline Moran).  1/5 stars.

Here we find a film that is definitely not for young viewers.  Everyone else will be either bored or rather “unsettled” (yes, that’s me).  I’ve watched more disturbing or gory stories, but this was filmed in such a way as to get your imagination going, in a way that was not particularly rewarding.  The ending was gratuitously upsetting and abrupt, which was more irritating than anything else.

Plotwise, the story had potential and your typical Victorian characters – the eccentric elderly lady, worldly-wise older man, adventurous young man, and angelic young wife.  It seemed very much like a spin-off of Dracula, without Van Helsing or any of the redeeming qualities of that classic.  We have a female character who is kept in the dark, with slightly more understandable reasons, which still didn’t convince me as being necessary.  I am not sure how the story would have gone if she had been aware of what was going on.  In any case, Kidd’s family is here just used as another part of the plot’s trainwreck.  That, to me, shows poor writing and too much reliance on shock value, even for a thriller.

Let me know what you think – have you seen any of these films?  Have you read the book The Woman in Black or seen the newer film starring Daniel Radcliffe?  I’d be interested to know if that one is any better.


Disclaimer: I don’t own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use).