Caution: This post may contain SPOILERS, depending on how your imagination works.
“If you want to analyze everything in terms of plausibility then you end up doing a documentary.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock is the best person to defend any outrageous act in a movie, and I’m thinking here about the one in the last section of Gone Girl, the altered scene that is different from Gillian Flynn’s book.
After watching the movie, something drove me back to Hitchcock. So in the past week, I’ve binge-watched all the Hitchcock thrillers that I could find, over half a dozen. Three of them I will discuss here, for they are like prototypes of Gone Girl. I’m sure both Flynn and Fincher have had the master’s influence silently creeping up their spine.
Surprisingly, the most obvious element common in these Hitchcock films is light-hearted humour, which I didn’t find in Gone Girl. Some dialogues are LOL funny. Crime and suspense can happen side by side with laughter; good and evil indwells at the same time. It is like Hitchcock is asking how can we separate these two sides of human nature?
And a common setting of these stories? Right within a marriage and the family.
This is the film that’s closest to Gone Girl‘s first part. Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar with her role as the naive but devoted Lina as she falls for the suave and charming Johnnie played by Cary Grant. They get married shortly after they meet. As the film progresses, Lina suspects her husband more and more. Hitchcock tells the story from Lina’s point of view, dropping clues so we are as suspicious as Lina. Despite his outward charm, Johnnie could just be a scoundrel after her rich father’s money.
With this suspicion in mind, a glass of milk can be seen as poison. Here is an unforgettable shot as we see Johnnie walks up the long flight of stairs holding the healthy drink on a platter, now perceived (by us, as directed by Hitchcock) as poison.
Without spilling any spoilers, I read that Hitchcock’s own preferred ending is different from what the audience see in the eventual cut released on screen. Who can mess with Cary Grant’s good guy image? Not even the master himself.
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Strangers On A Train (1951)
Two people unknown to each other meet on a train. One is a tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and the other a psychotic misanthrope Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who suggests they crisscross two murder schemes: he kills Guy’s wife so the tennis pro can marry his lover, and Guy kills Bruno’s father whom the son loathes. At his stop, Guy gets off the train taking the conversation with this stranger as a joke, and forgetting his initial-inscribed lighter on the compartment table.
So the one who takes this plan seriously goes ahead and follows through, while the other is drawn into a crime being the prime suspect. When Guy refuses to carry out his part, Bruno goes back to the crime scene so he can plant the lighter there to incriminate Guy. Here we can see Hitchcock’s signature style in extending his suspense in the most mundane act. As he is heading over there, Bruno drops Guy’s lighter through the grills of a street sewage hole. The camera closes up on a frantic hand stretching as far into the hole as possible to retrieve the lighter lodged in there. This is the kind of shots that could lodge in our memory even after we forget the whole storyline.
No matter how suspenseful and wicked the plot, Hitchcock’s movies are fun to watch. The key person to suspect something is wrong is usually a minor character, a younger sister with thick glasses, brainy, observant. We find her here as Guy’s lover Ann’s younger sister Barbara, played by the director’s own daughter Patricia Hitchcock.
The noir writer Raymond Chandler adapted Patricia Highsmith’s first novel of the same name. Those who think black-and-white movies dating back sixty years could not possibly be as entertaining as what we have today must see this one.
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Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Still earlier, seventy years ago, the Pulitzer winning playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder was one of three co-writers of the screenplay based on a short work by Gordon McDonell, who won the Best Writing Oscar for his original story.
Again, the setting is quiet small town America, Santa Rosa, where nothing happens much. That’s the ironic setting at the beginning of the film when Young Charlie (Teresa Wright), the eldest girl in a ‘typical’ family, lying on her bed, lamenting the boredom of suburban living. She suddenly thinks of an idea that would make her day.
So Young Charlie springs up and heads to the telegram office to send a message to her favorite relative Uncle Charlie (her namesake, played by the ubiquitous Joseph Cotton), her mother’s younger brother, a charmer living in NYC, urging him to come visit them. While there, Mrs. Henderson hands her a telegram from her Uncle Charlie that says he’s coming to visit them in a couple of days.
Young Charlie is elated. Here’s the following conversation she has with Mrs. Henderson:
Young Charlie: Mrs. Henderson, do you believe in telepathy?
Mrs. Henderson: Well, I ought to. That’s my business.
Young Charlie: Oh, not telegraphy. mental telepathy. Like… well, suppose you have a thought, and suppose the thought’s about someone you’re in tune with. Then across miles, that person knows what you’re thinking and answers you. And it’s all mental.
Mrs. Henderson: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I only send telegrams the normal way.
It’s this kind of unexpected pleasantries that make Hitchcock films so enjoyable, even in the midst of crime and suspense. As we would soon see, young Charlie has a crush on her Uncle Charlie. But that’s just the beginning of the film, and we soon find Uncle Charlie just may not be what he seems to be.
Young Charlie: … we’re not just an uncle and a niece. It’s something else. I know you. I know that you don’t tell people a lot of things. I don’t either. I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there’s something nobody knows about.
Uncle Charlie: Something… nobody knows?
Young Charlie: Something secret and wonderful and… I’ll find it out.
Uncle Charlie: It’s not good to find out too much, Charlie.
Young Charlie: But we’re sort of like twins. Don’t you see?
These dialogues sum up the premise of the movie Gone Girl 70 years later. How much do we know about another person, even if that person is one of our family. How can one get inside the head of another and read the mind? There can be dark secrets within the mind that knowing them may endanger the one who discovers them.
The setting is similar too, a sleepy, innocent American small town and a newcomer from NYC. Good and evil are like twins, they lie obliviously beside each other.
Hitchcock is such a brilliant creator of suspense. Even just with young Charlie rushing through busy streets to get to the library before it closes at 9 pm keeps me on the edge of my seat, for I want to know if she makes it before it closes since she needs to find the missing newspaper page her Uncle Charlie is trying to throw away. What’s on there that he needs to hide it from her family?
Exactly, you have to run to the library to find yesterday’s paper to read on a piece of news story. That’s filmmaking dating back 70 years, but no less suspenseful and thrilling. Well, the library just closed as she gets there, but after knocking on the door, the librarian lets her in, scolds her a little then gives her three minutes to find what she needs.
As the camera zooms in, we finally see the news on the page: the nationwide search for the Merry Widow Murderer.
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Filmmaking techniques have advanced unimaginably since Hitchcock’s time, yet after changes and changes, we are more or less the same, and films remain one of the most agile means to expose and entertain all in one shot.
To Read my review of Gone Girl the movie, CLICK HERE.