Steve Cochran in Private Hell 36 (1954): homme fatale?


Don Siegel’s criminally underrated Private Hell 36 (1954) can never seem to make its way onto any worthy ‘top noir’ list, perhaps justly so. It’s pretty solid, but there is probably no place for it amongst the giants. No category in which it fits and at which it excels. Apart from one: it has a homme fatale, rather than a femme fatale. That’s right, when you tear apart the metaphors, Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) might just be one of the genre’s few hommes fatale.

The plot, penned by Ida Lupino and Collier Young, follows two LA police officers, Bruner and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) as they investigate a drugstore robbery. A fake 50 dollar bill leads them to Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a singer in a nightclub, and after a few questions, she ends up helping them with the investigation. However, when they finally catch their man, Bruner decides to take the money himself and hide it in a secure place: trailer park #36…

What starts off as a rather typical noir – an ongoing robbery and the ensuing shootout in the dark streets of LA – turns into one of the most ambigious noirs of the 1950s. Not least because of its characters. We have two police officers and a nightclub songstress as our three leads and yet their roles are somewhat different than what you’d expect. Firstly, Lilli is far from a femme fatale. Yes, she’s down on her luck and lusts after money, but that’s only because she knows what it’s like not to have any. Her wise-cracking ways reveal more about her than she’d like to and her assertion that ‘she was framed for something she didn’t do, so today she doesn’t go around framing other people’ tells us that she has a good head on her shoulders and a heart of gold. She’s not trying to get anyone into trouble. She’s only trying to make some money, get by and look out for herself. Then there’s Jack Farnham, a level-headed, hard-working family man. His wife Francey (Dorothy Malone) and their daughter Bridget provide a contrast to his line of work, a safe haven and a happy routine. And then we have Cal Bruner. On the surface, he appears to be on the level. He’s our introduction to the world of Private Hell 36, as he chases after the robbers in the film’s opening sequence and straight-away, we know that we can probably trust him. His charisma and charm later on win us over – ‘I’m irresistible’, he says to Jack – and his relationship with Lilli gives the film its central romance. Which is why his deeds in the second half feel like such a blow. And this is why I think Cal Bruner is a ‘homme fatale’. At first, he appears to be safe. We trust him, because we see no reason not to. He’s good at his job, he’s charming and his friendship with Farnham is solid and endearing. That is, until about forty minutes into the movie. After this, everything changes and we start to see his true colors. Then we realize what has happened: he successfully seduced both Lilli and Jack. After his first encounter with Lilli in the club, he managed to work his way into her life by using his wits and attractiveness and he sweet-talked her into being with him. Their shared sleaziness and carefree attitude about commitment attracts them to each other and soon enough, her life as she knows it changes. And the same goes for Jack. By letting him in on it, Cal removes the safety and security from Jack’s life. His mere presence in his house threatens to disturb the peace and the happy, harmless family life he built for himself. Jack’s wracked with guilt and Cal’s effect on him is similar to that of a femme fatale on a fallen hero – it’s perhaps no coincidence that the relationship between the two of them is often addressed in homoerotic undertones. It is true that one could say Cal’s actions are motivated by his relationship with Lilli, but are they? Towards the end of the money, Jack tells him ‘You’re sick, Cal. I should have known that a long time ago. You don’t care about anything or anybody.’, so there’s that. Maybe he’s just a corrupt cop, God knows there are millions of those in the streets in film noir, but they usually make themselves known to us fairly early on. Nah. Cal Bruner is more than that. Maybe this wasn’t intentional, but his ambiguity as a character certainly makes him a strong contender for the title of film noir’s smoothest, slyest homme fatale.


SCREENPLAY BY: Dudley Nichols


Everybody knows George C. Scott was the first actor to refuse an Oscar, but not many people know that screenwriter Dudley Nichols was the very first person to do so. Not only that, but he was also one of the most prolific and well-regarded story crafters of the 1930s and 40s.

Born in 1895 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Nichols started his career as a reporter and feature writer for the New York Evening Post and the New York World, before moving to Hollywood in 1929. The following year, he co-wrote Men Without Women (1930), the first of many collaborations with director John Ford. After a string of Pre-Codes, dramas and comedies, including A Connecticut Yankee (1931), She Wanted a Millionaire (1932) and The Lost Patrol (1934), he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for The Informer (1935), which he turned down, becoming the first person to do so. As a member, and later President, of the Screen Writers Guild, formed in 1933, his refusal was part of a boycott of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which the Guild felt was a ‘company union’, and part of the oppressive Hollywood studio system. In 1938, after a long dispute, the Screen Writers Guild was finally recognized as the sole representative of screenwriters, and Nichols accepted his Oscar at last. After this, he went on to write such movies as Bringing up Baby (1938), Stagecoach (1939), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945), among others and he received three more Oscar nominations  for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Air Force (1943) and The Tin Star (1957). He also wrote the screenplays for the only three films he directed, Government Girl (1943), Sister Kenny (1946) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) – Rosalind Russell was Oscar-nominated for the last two.

Dudley Nichols received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America, before passing away in Los Angeles in 1960.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and that chilling scene…


Leon Shamroy’s stunning, ethereal Oscar-winning cinematography in Leave Her to Heaven (dir. John M. Stahl, 1945) is the perfect backdrop for one of the most despicable things any character ever did in a movie. But before that, here’s what we’re dealing with: Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meet on a train and soon become attracted to each other. As luck would have it, they’re heading to the same destination, a beautiful ranch in New Mexico. Unsurprisingly, after a few mishaps that include Ellen breaking off her engagement to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she and Richard get married. But things start to take a turn for the worse, as Ellen’s possessiveness and jealousy start to show and her obsession with Richard turns deadly…

The film’s crowning moment, and one of the greatest moments in film history, comes about an hour into it and represents a clear, undeniable shift in the film’s tone and in the character of Ellen: on a beautiful, sunny day, Richard’s younger, disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and Ellen are on a boat in the lake. She’s been helping him with his swimming and he’s eager to show his brother how much he’s improved, so he decides to go for one last swim, so he can ‘show Dick tomorrow!’. He goes in and swims for a while, with Ellen right behind him on the boat, almost like a predator… After a few seconds, he gets a stomach cramp and starts to drown. He calls out for Ellen… But Ellen doesn’t come. She sits motionless on the boat, watching him drown, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, knowing that, with him gone, Richard will be all hers…

It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie, particularly because of how unusual it is. Unlike its 1940s noir counterparts, Leave Her to Heaven is set against the backdrop of a breath-takingly beautiful place, making the most of its glorious Technicolor. So it stands to reason that its most dramatic moment should take place on that lake, surrounded by trees, not too far from their lodge, on a sun-soaked day. That’s all it needs, because Ellen is dark enough as it is. And that in itself is probably the biggest argument for Leave Her to Heaven‘s inclusion in the noir canon: that comfort, that security, that idyllic scenario, cruelly taken away from us by something extremely dark lurking underneath. From the moment she realizes what she could do, to the moment Danny drowns, her evilness is evident: her face barely hiding her contempt for Danny as she decides what she’s going to do; her lips pursed, and her eyes fixated on him as she makes sure he’s gone for good… And like that, silence. Nothing, apart from the ripples of the water as it becomes still again.

This was Gene Tierney’s only Oscar nomination, and while her performance had been good enough up until this point, I am convinced this was the scene that sealed the deal. It’s an extraordinary acting moment, one that doesn’t require a whole lot of dialogue, other than a few stone-cold responses as Danny looks back every once in a while, and one that only needs to be conveyed on her face. That’s it. There’s no music, no big argument, no nothing. Just Gene Tierney. Because that’s all we need.

COMEDY GOLD #13: The morning routine from The More The Merrier (1943)

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One of the most endearing rom-coms of all time, the premise of The More the Merrier (dir. George Stevens, 1943) is full of comedic potential: during the war, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) and Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) are forced to share an apartment following the housing shortage in Washington DC, with Dingle eventually acting as the matchmaker between Connie and Joe. The film is filled with hilarious situations and one-liners but, if pressed, I’d say the morning routing between Connie and Dingle is possibly the funniest moment: after seeing an ad in the newspaper, Dingle heads to Connie’s apartment and asks her to let him stay with her, despite her initial objections. She eventually says yes, and while the entire movie enjoys the comedic abilities and chemistry between the three leads, it is really Connie and Dingle who set the movie up for comedy glory right from the start. About ten minutes into it, the two of them have drafted an over-complicated morning schedule which, when acted out the following morning, relies on physical comedy so wonderfully, it borders on slapstick. Everything from pratfalls, to miscommunication to hilarious outbursts! George Stevens directs the scene – and the whole film – to perfection, while the two of them provide the laughs with their legendary comic timing. Jean Arthur was Oscar-nominated for her performance – the one and only time – and Charles Coburn actually won for Best Supporting Actor. No wonder!

SCREENPLAY BY: Frances Marion


Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the 1920s and 30s were, actually, surprisingly kind to female screenwriters – as kind as the Hollywood studio system could be anyway. And none was more renowned than Frances Marion, the woman who is literally prefaced as ‘the most renowned female screenwriter of the 20th century’ in every bio. That acclaim, of course, is richly deserved.

Born in San Francisco, CA, in 1888, Marion worked as a photographer’s assistant and artist in her youth before becoming a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. After her move to Los Angeles in 1913, she began working as a writing assistant in director Lois Weber’s film company. During that time, she worked as a war correspondent and eventually became the first woman to cross the Rhine after the armistice. In Hollywood, she wrote several scripts for her friend Mary Pickford, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Polyanna (1920) and The Love Light (1921), which she also directed. In 1925, she wrote the first film adaptation of Stella Dallas (1925), and in 1930, she won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big House (1930), making her the first woman to win a Screenplay Oscar. In that same year, she wrote the hugely successful Min and Bill (1930), a vehicle for Marie Dressler, who won Best Actress. The next year, Marion won her second Oscar, for The Champ (1931), which in turn also earned Wallace Beery his Oscar. In 1933, she teamed up with Beery and Dressler again, in George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933), which she co-wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz. The popularity of Dinner at Eight, so soon after Min and Bill, saw her being credited with having revived Marie Dressler’s career. This was due in no small part to her ability to work with specific actors and to highlight their strengths as performers, and in a variety of genres; she wrote comedies, silents, crimes dramas, tear-jerkers, among others, in the course of nearly four decades. She retired in the 1940s, having written over 300 scripts throughout her career. In 1973, Frances Marion died in Los Angeles, at the age of 84.

The Jean Harlow Blogathon – The subversive message of Wife vs. Secretary (1936)


The silly title of Wife vs. Secretary (dir. Clarence Brown, 1936) could easily fool you. And the plot could very well make you want to scratch your eyes out just from reading it: Linda Stanhope (Myrna Loy) believes her husband Van (Clark Gable) is about to have an affair with his secretary, ‘Whitey’ Wilson (Jean Harlow). But this obvious and stereotypical plot is anything but. Wife vs. Secretary is not what you think it’s going to be. Wife vs. Secretary is neither about a wife nor a secretary and their rivarly, not in the traditional sense anyway. We only have to look at the first moment we see Jean Harlow to understand this: dressed in proper secretary clothes, she stands on a chair fixing a portrait of Van that hangs in his office. Professional, capable and business-minded, she interacts with Van as his secretary and friend. It isn’t until Van’s mother Mimi (May Robson) takes a look at her – blonde and beautiful – that she decides that she must be a distraction to Van. She expresses her worries to Linda, who quickly dismisses them: she and Van are very obviously head over heels in love with each other and their marriage is a happy one. But Mimi insists, and so do Linda’s (female) friends… And we all know what that’s going to lead to. And that’s just the thing. There is nothing in Van and Whitey’s relationship that would make one believe that they’re more than friends, other than the fact that she’s very attractive and that he is a man, and in the words of Mimi, ‘men are like that.’. The movie’s very treatment of the Jean Harlow character goes against the stereotype: she’s a smart, ambitious woman who loves her job and her relationship with Dave (James Stewart in one of his first screen roles) ‘suffers’ because of this, as we see in the scene where he asks her to give up her job in order to become a wife and mother, which he thinks is only natural. In this moment, as the close-up on her face shows her inner turmoil, we root for her. Of course we do. And I suspect audiences in 1936 did as well. She is the hero of the picture, rather than the villain, or ‘the other woman’. In fact, all three leads are extremely sympathetic. This isn’t your typical love triangle, certainly not the kind we’re used to seeing in 1930s comedies, with regards to its characters. There are no ‘sides’ in this, at least from the point of view of the audience and, in a way, they’re all victims.

Disguised as a comedy-drama, Wife vs. Secretary is so much more than that. Alice Duer Miller, Norman Krasna and John Lee Mahin crafted a screenplay that deals with society’s double standards, stereotypes and damaging perceptions in a subversive way that is almost unprecedented. Wife vs. Secretary is an eye-opener, then and now.

For more entries on the Jean Harlow Blogathon hosted by Samantha over at Musings of a Classic Film Addict and Virginie from The Wonderful World of Cinema, click here.

31 Days of Oscar Blogathon – Best Supporting Actress nominees of 1952/53


I’ll be honest with you, out of the four acting categories at the Oscars, Best Supporting Actress is probably my least favourite. By that I mean, throughout the years, it’s the one that has impressed me the least, performances-wise. But because I always try and give things a second chance, I thought I’d focus on this category for this year’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. So, I started by looking at the nominees and winners over the years, and I thought 1953 was quite interesting. Not least because one of them is a proper comedic performance and another one is the debut performance of a ballet dancer. On top of that, the winner is one of the my all-time favorite actresses. They were: Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba, Thelma Ritter in With a Song in my Heart, Colette Marchand in Moulin Rouge, Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain and the winner Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful. Let’s look at the nominees:

In Come Back, Little Sheba (dir. Daniel Mann), married couple Lola (Shirley Booth in an Oscar-winning performance) and ‘Doc’ Delaney (Burt Lancaster) are forced to confront their demons when a young student, Marie (Terry Moore) rents a room in their home. Mann’s adaptation of the hit 1950 Broadway play by William Inge is one of the very finest domestic dramas of all time, and while Booth and Lancaster deliver powerhouse performances, Moore’s supporting performance is exactly that. An ambitious young student whose mere presence in the house and carefree attitude towards the love triangle she finds herself in triggers parental feelings in both of them, forcing them to relive past tragedies and come to terms with the trials and tribulations of their marriage. Moore is efficient and more than capable in a role that could be the very definition of ‘supporting’. Which leads us to Thelma Ritter, who is probably one of the most iconic character actresses of all time, and whose performance in With a Song in my Heart (dir. Walter Lang) proves why she was the go-to choice for supporting parts. A biographical film, With a Song in my Heart stars Susan Hayward in an Oscar-nominated performance as the popular singer Jane Froman. About forty minutes into it, Froman’s life-changing plane crash in 1943 gives the film its most dramatic moments, documenting her slow recovery and the impact it had on her for the rest of her life. Thelma Ritter plays Clancy, Jane’s nurse, and while her typical wise-cracking ways are still there, they’re surpassed by her warmth and compassion, particularly in the scene where she gives Jane a much-needed pep talk, after which she herself breaks down in tears. This was the third of six nominations (with no wins) in this category for Ritter – a record – and, looking at it, it’s easy to see why she went on to become such a veteran. Contrastingly, Colette Marchand in Moulin Rouge (dir. John Huston) might just have been the underdog in this race: it was her debut performance and what a performance! Set in Paris in the late 19th century, Moulin Rouge tells the story of French painter Henri Toulouse-Latrec (Oscar-nominated Jose Ferrer) from his childhood, and the tragic event that shaped his life, to his early death at the age of 36. In the present day, we’re back in Paris, where prostitute Marie (Marchand) walks into Henri’s life when she asks him to pretend to be her companion as she’s being pursued by the police. He allows her to stay with him that night, and when she claims not to care about his small stature, he appears to fall in love with her. Marchand delivers a fervent performance as the reckless, impulsive and self-assured Marie, which is appropriately the epitome of the bohemian nature of 1890s Paris (and the Moulin Rouge); a rich, meaty character that seems to be the type of role most actresses would love to sink their teeth into. Similarly, so is Jean Hagen’s character in Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly). Not only that, but her performance is both an unusual and common occurence at the Oscars: a comedy performance. It’s unusual because, as we know, comedy doesn’t get rewarded, and indeed awarded, as often as drama does, but probably more than any other acting category, Best Supporting Actress has featured quite a substantial amount of comedy performances, and Hagen’s might just be very near the top of the list. As the rather talentless actress Lina Lamont, she is the perfect diva. Cruel, mean, shallow and utterly dim, her antics are some of the film’s funniest moments (‘and I caaan’t staaand ‘im’), not to mention that she delivers one-liners like nobody’s business. An exaggerated (?) parody of the ‘Hollywood diva’ character, Lina Lamont serves as the comic relief in this musical parody of Hollywood, which is in stark contrast in itself to the other ‘showbiz’ film of 1952. The greatest film about Hollywood that isn’t Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Bad and the Beautiful (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1952) is told in flashback and follows the story of three Hollywood people, actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) as they each vow never to work with movie-mogul Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas in an Oscar-nominated performance) again. As we go back in time, we realize this is the typical Hollywood story, complete with successes, downfalls and everything in between. Caught in middle of it is Rosemary Bartlow (Gloria Grahame), James’ star-struck wife. Naive, supportive and ultimately harmless, Grahame’s performance as Rosemary is a breath of fresh air in this Hollywood world and her story – and fate – is perhaps one of the biggest lessons in the film. Making her entrance 1 hour and 23 minutes into the film (!), Grahame ended up winning the Oscar for her (9 minute) performance.

I think part of my love-hate relationship with this category might have to do with Hollywood’s historic problem with female roles which only becomes more obvious when the roles have to be significantly smaller, so to speak, to fit the ‘supporting’ category. I’ve also found that over the years, the category has been a bit ‘samey’, but that’s not to say at all that it hasn’t been a strong one. It has. And 1952/53 might just be one of the most interesting, not only for the performances themselves, but the versatility of the roles. We have a confident student, a nurse-turned-friend, an abrasive prostitute, an egotistical actress and a supportive wife. Some of these roles may have become archetypes, almost cliches, in the Supporting Actress category over the years (prostitutes and supportive wives, anyone?), but what’s interesting about them is that none of them seem to become a caricature. I mean, at no point is Jean Hagen’s Lina is anything but believable. Colette Marchard’s Marie, though stereotypical and, yes, predictable, is nonetheless effective. Even Terry Moore’s Marie could have been a lot less interesting than it was, but Moore certainly knew what to do with it. Thelma Ritter’s Clancy is both an unremarkable type of character on principle and a character that is made totally unique by having Thelma Ritter play it, and Gloria Grahame’s Rosemary, though often thought of as an upset win and not Grahame’s greatest performance, is a great turn nevertheless. It would be untrue, however, to claim these were all on the same level. They weren’t. Jean Hagen and Thelma Ritter, in my opinion, are miles above the others, and while I love Gloria Grahame, I’ll say that Jean Hagen should have probably been the winner that year. But that’s just my opinion, and that’s the great thing about the Oscars. While they offer no real credibility (legacy is a lot more important), it’s fun to watch them, to talk about them, and yes, to lose our minds over some of the choices the Academy has made. I know I have. It’s all good in the end, though, as long as we keep watching movies. That, ultimately, is what matters.

COMEDY GOLD #12: The telephone conversation from Midnight (1939)


Midnight (dir. Mitchell Leisen, 1939) is one of the many, many gems that came out in Hollywood’s greatest ever year. Not only that, but the Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett-penned screwball comedy is also probably the funniest of the bunch: showgirl Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) arrives in Paris with nothing but an evening gown. She befriends taxi driver Tibor (Don Ameche), who lets her stay with him for the night. However, unbeknownst to him, she soon slips out and crashes a high-society party. While there, she meets Helene Flammarion (Mary Astor), her toyboy Picot (Francis Lederer), and her husband Georges (John Barrymore), who immediately hires her to break up the relationship between Helene and Picot. Not only that, but Tibor is now searching for Eve as well…

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how funny John Barrymore was. His extensive Shakespearean background and dramatic screen roles could have easily overshadowed his comedic performances, but you have to look no further than Midnight (and Twentieth Century, 1934) to see that he deserves just as much praise for these as anything else. In Midnight, the telephone scene is certainly his crowning moment: chaos is well on its way by the time Tibor, pretending to be Eve’s husband, tries to get her away from this mess she got herself into. He comes up with a fake daughter called Francie and pretends to have received a telegram from Budapest saying she has the measles. Eve and Georges are onto him, of course, and Georges quickly goes into the next room, while Eve places a fake call to Budapest. Obviously, Georges’ one-liners and baby-talk on the other side make the entire scene. It’s such a silly moment, and that’s what makes it so funny. The wonderful absurdity of screwball comedies is unparalleled, even to this day, and Midnight is one of those that gets funnier every time you watch it. And while Claudette Colbert was one of the queens of the genre, John Barrymore should rightfully be up there with her and the rest of them. But then again, how can you not be funny with a script written by Wilder and Brackett?

Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon – The brilliance of the MacGuffin


Yeah, yeah, we all love Alfred Hitchcock and the world is full of movie lovers bending over backwards trying to over-analyze Vertigo (1958), give Norman Bates a heart or prove that North by Northwest (1959) is a romantic comedy. There is not a whole lot left to talk about, dissect or explore in Hitchcock’s filmography. But I love a blogathon. And I love Hitchcock. So here’s my article about some of his MacGuffins. Because why not?

Described by Hitchcock himself as ‘the thing that the spies are after, but the audience don’t care’, a MacGuffin is an object, real or abstract, and essentially a plot device, that sets the true plot of the film in motion. It’s something that the characters are after, and that ultimately leads them to the situation that is the plot. So, in other words, a MacGuffin is only important to the character s and discardable to the audience. Psycho (1960), for example, contains Hitchcock’s most easily identifiable MacGuffin: the 40,000 dollars. In the film’s opening scene, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) talk about Sam’s increasing debts; that afternoon, she steals her boss’ money, goes on the run, is stopped by a state patrol trooper, then dumps her car at the dealership, and then checks into the Bates Motel… and there we have Psycho. The money is now irrelevant and the story changes perspective entirely. It’s such a clear shift, so well made, that there is no mistaking it. Vertigo, on the other, the most studied of all of his films, is not that simple. One of the many things that keeps being brought up regarding Vertigo is the MacGuffin. Film historians and indeed bloggers alike have argued that Scottie (James Stewart)’s vertigo itself is the MacGuffin. Others say that it’s plot itself (film students!). Others, the majority in fact, and The Garden includes itself in that bunch, say that Carlotta Valdes is the MacGuffin: Scottie is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak), who he thinks has been possessed by ‘someone dead’. That someone is Carlotta Valdes, who turns out to be Madeleine’s great-grandmother. She visits the places where she can feel Carlotta’s presence, namely the cemetery and the museum, followed by Scottie, and this, in turn, leads to the infamous Golden Gate Bridge moment, the catalyst event for everything that follows it. If we accept that the cause of concern for Gavin is Madeleine’s disposition, and that he wants Scottie to, in his own words, find out ‘where she goes and what she does’ and if we accept that where she goes and what she does and indeed the reason she feels like this has to do with Carlotta, then Carlotta can only be the MacGuffin. Although there is also a case to be made for Madeleine herself being the MacGuffin, and indeed for both of them to be a red herring. I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole on this one – a Classic Hollywood blog discussing Vertigo, imagine that… – but there’s a reason why it’s endlessly discussable and indeed Sight & Sound’s ‘greatest film of all time’ (sorry, Orson).

The MacGuffin in The Birds (1963) on the other hand, is somewhere in between Vertigo and Psycho, in the indecipherability scale. But only one thing really makes sense: the romance between Melanie (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch (Rod Taylor). It’s the thing that appears to be the main focus in the first twenty minutes or so, and it’s the thing that ultimately brings Melanie (and doom) to Bodega Bay. It’s been argued that the very reason why the birds attack is the MacGuffin, but not only is this unlikely, but also what this does instead is provide a question that ultimately needs to remain unanswered while keeping the audience guessing as opposed to having them dismiss it halfway through, in the way that the MacGuffin does. Needless to say, this is essentially the theme of the film (Man vs. Nature) in the form of a mystery; a sort of message, if you will.

Rear Window (1954)‘s MacGuffin is an interesting one. For a long time, critics and fans have debated over what it is, and some of them have claimed that there isn’t one, a clear one anyway, considering the straight-forwardness of the plot: a wheelchair bound Jeff (James Stewart) watches his neighbors from his own apartment and eventually realizes one of them, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is up to something. The MacGuffin is a curious one, but it is there: ‘what’s buried in the backyard?’ is considered to be Rear Window’s ultimate MacGuffin, because even though one could say the very suspicion that something has happened to Mrs Thorwald could be the MacGuffin, the plot only moves forward – and outside of the apartment – when Jeff realizes the flowerbed looks different than it did a few days prior. After this, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Stella (Thelma Ritter) go outside to uncover the mystery, which leads them to Thorwald’s apartment… The question in the MacGuffin remains semi-answered and by that point, we’ve reached the the main point and the climax.

The more straight-forward Hitchcock MacGuffins – government secrets/the microfilm in North by Northwest, the uranium in Notorious (1946), the military secrets in The 39 Steps (1935), etc – follow the classic interpretation of a MacGuffin more closely, in the way that so many non-Hitchcockian contemporary films did – the letters of transit in Casablanca (1942), the statuette in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941) being just some of them, whereas the more complex ones – the coded message in The Lady Vanishes (1939), the cause of Harry’s death in The Trouble with Harry (1955), etc – offer a different take on it, one that is quintessential Alfred Hitchcock and that only he could pull off. The endless debates over the MacGuffins in his films, more than anyone else’s, are proof of this. Even more interesting is the fact that the very idea of a MacGuffin mirrors the voyeurism element of many Hitchcock films: we watch the characters as they try and get out of whatever situation the MacGuffin has brought them to. One could say that that’s the very essence of movie-watching, but the unimportance we, the audience, put on the MacGuffin, this thing that matters to these characters, just to then watch and indeed revel in how they get out of it, is wonderfully wicked in itself. The irony, of course, is that a MacGuffin is ultimately important. It’s a plot device which goes from being important, to unimportant when other issues arise, and then back to important, when it turns out that the characters wouldn’t have achieved what they did had it not been for the MacGuffin, and ultimately that there would have been no movie without it. All hail the MacGuffin!

Click here for more posts on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon!


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A few months ago, I participated in the Dynamic Duos blogathon, with an article about director Anthony Mann and cinematographer John Alton, who are one of my favorite partnerships in Hollywood history. It wasn’t until a while later that I realized screenwriter John C. Higgins is as much part of this as Mann and Alton. Then it hit me just how underrated he is. I suppose that, other than the fact that he’s a screenwriter, his underratedness can also be explained by how little information there is about him (go on, Google him).

Well, apparently he was born in 1908 in Winnipeg, Canada and he went to Hollywood in the early 1930s, where he began his career by writing murder mysteries, including The Murder Man (1935), starring Spencer Tracy (and a not-yet-famous Jimmy Stewart), as well as a number of shorts, such as The Public Pays (1936) and Come Across (1938). The 1940s were undoubtedly his greatest period, during which he frequently collaborated with Anthony Mann in numerous films noir, including T-Men (1947), Railroaded! (1947), Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) and Border Incident (1949). Looking back at these, one wonders why John C. Higgins isn’t more widely celebrated, not only beacause of how great they are, but also how unique they are. The importance of male friendship in a dark underworld in T-Men, the unlikely progressiveness of Raw Deal regarding its female characters, and the inclusiveness and sympathetic character portrayals in Border Incident, particularly, should have been groundbreaking enough for Higgins to have a permanent place in the Classic Hollywood grand pantheon. Higgins understood people. He gave noirs and their characters a heart, compassion and empathy. Anthony Mann and John Alton may have created visual poetry with their shots, but John C. Higgins tugged at your heartstrings with his words.

He continued to write films throughout the 1950s and 60s, including Shield for Murder (1954), The Black Sleep (1956) and Impasse (1969), before passing away in 1995.