FRIGHTENING FLIX BY KBATZ: An Alfred Hitchcock Primer


An Alfred Hitchcock Primer

by Kristin Battestella

Fans of old school thrillers young or old can earn their suspense credentials with these early Alfred Hitchcock nail biters.

The Lady Vanishes Only one lovely train passenger has seen the titular dame, causing rail car mayhem for Margaret Lockwood (The Wicked Lady) and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra) in this 1938 mystery. Travel delays and assorted languages invoke the tourist hustle and bustle as our ensemble is humorously introduced – from the governess rambling about her past charges and country songs or dances to cranky Englishmen commandeering the phone just to ask the line from London for the cricket scores. All the rooms are let out in this hectic hotel save for the maid’s quarters, and she comes with the room, wink! The bellhop is trying not to look at the scandalous bare legs as our bachelorette orders caviar and champagne, but the men in bed together is gay in both senses of the word with jolly good innuendo. This quirky inn comforts the audience yet there are whispers of pretty American girls and the almighty dollar getting preferential treatment, newspaper sensationalism, and intensifying continental troubles. A hit on the head at the train station leads to a kaleidoscope of confusion, unfamiliar faces, magic tricks, and slight of hand illusion. Everyone’s interconnected – incognito affairs, musicians, a famous doctor, magicians, and foreign diplomats. Some genuinely don’t recall seeing the woman in question, but others have an ulterior motive for not wanting the train delayed, willful gaslighting compounded by lies, lawyers watching their own back, and that unreliable bump on the head. Tea in the dining car alone, suspicious wine glasses – complaints about non-English speakers, nationalism, political secrets, and conspiracies. Who’s really on who’s side? Train whistle harbingers pepper the constant hum of travel, matching the rail montages, impressive rear projection, and black and white photography. Despite the confined setting, the pace remains fittingly on the move with perilous comings and goings between cars. There are stoles and divine hats, too, but that giant monogram scarf looks more like a napkin stuck in her collar! Humorous bunging in the cargo with magician’s rabbits, trick boxes, false bottoms, and contortionists is good on its own, however, perhaps such fun should have happened earlier before the serious mystery escalates. There are some contrived leaps as well – it’s amazing how all the Englishmen can shoot to kill and do it so easily – and though not naming the enemy country is understandable thanks to political relevance then and now, the obligatory bad guys are just nondescript. Likewise, one can see why the sardonic comedy teams and shootouts were included, and Flightplan really steals from this right down to the writing on the foggy window. Fortunately, the ticking clock race to the border, wrong track turns, gunfire standoffs, and international chases roll on right up to the end. But seriously, what it is with Hitchcock and trains already?



Lifeboat – Journalist Tallulah Bankhead is stranded on the high seas with torpedoes, sunken ships, u-boats, and Nazis in this 1944 self-contained thriller nominated for Best Director, Story by John Steinbeck, and Black and White Cinematography. There’s no need to waste time on spectacle with the in media res sinking – flotsam and jetsam with everything from English playing cards to dead Germans heralds the nationalism and wartime grays to come amid damp passengers, dirty sailors, famous dames, mothers, babies, and injuries. Tallulah’s in furs, smoking a cigarette, and dictating what junk to bridge aboard, and despite the tiny boat space, multiple conversations happen fore and aft thanks to strategic intercutting between the immediate wounded and more self-absorbed survivors. Fog and windswept water sprays accent the superb rear projection, and the strategic filming captures everyone from all angles with foreground zooms and background silhouettes. Natural ocean sounds and the rocking of the ship, however, might make sensitive viewers seasick. There are numerous colloquialisms as well as accents and translations, but conversation is all we have – a stage-like talkative jam packed with insinuating layers, interrogations, and double meanings. Can you make your own law in open waters and toss the Nazi overboard? Everyone feels the need to establish who’s American, Christian, or had relatives in Czechoslovakia and France, and the black cook is surprised he’s included in all the decisions. It’s unfortunately expected that Canada Lee’s (Cry the Beloved Country) Joe is the least developed character, yet he’s also the most genuine person starboard. This is also a more diverse ensemble than often seen in today’s movies, and three women talk to each other about shell shock and lacking supplies but nobody knows the right prayers for a burial at sea. Cold, wet, sleepless individual vignettes allow the refreshingly flawed stranded to come clean, and at the time having a Nazi officer as a realistic character rather than an evil archetype was understandably controversial. Testy questions on who’s skipper, united sympathies, and diplomatic delegating drop the formalities, as after all “we’re all in the same boat.” However, information is not always forthcoming and no one knows the course to Bermuda – except Herr Kapitan. Can you trust his seamanship? A compass, typewriter, watches, diamond bracelets, brandy, and newspapers with Sir Alfred in the classifieds add tangibles and some humor alongside baseball talk, debate on the superior rowing capabilities of the Master Race, and other unexpected camaraderie, for “dying together is more personal than living together.” Repeated “Some of my best friends are…” quips also address differences as rambling on past regrets becomes veiled talk about shocking revelations and amputations. Lost material possessions give way to symbolic shoes, bare feet, shirtless men, and tattoos, but there’s time for intense poker, lipstick, and flirtation. Bermuda is the macguffin, and storms, hunger, delirium, suspicion, and men overboard get in the way of getting there. Rather than just special effects cool, wet and wild action heightens the internal boat suspense as beards grow and tables turn. They’re surrounded by undrinkable water, rain is precious, fishing bait is nonexistent, and sudden twists happen with nothing but a splash. Violent mutinies and shellfire are surprising to see in a forties movie, but Bankhead is a stunning, strong, sexy older woman able to be kissing or angry in the same scene – a multifaceted female role few and far between these days. Once stripped bare by the consequences of welcoming your enemy, do you accept your fate, continue to row, or laugh at the irony? Perhaps this warning against fatally lumping all together and the guilty lessons learned in such a no win situation can only be appreciated in retrospect, as this tale tries to see everything from both sides, remaining gripping from beginning to end with nothing but eight people in a boat in the middle of the ocean intensity. It makes one wonder why nowadays everything is so gosh darn bombastic.


SabotageBuzzing light bulbs go dark in this 1936 caper based on The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad – not to be confused with Hitchcock’s previous Secret Agent or later Saboteur. Whew! Crowds are both confused and giggling in this blackout, singing or arguing by candlelit and wanting their money back from the down picture show. Flashlights, the silhouetted skyline, shadow schemes, and askew camera angles add to the power tampering suspicion, and suspenseful notes follow our mysterious man in black as he returns home, washes his hands, and claims innocence – despite his neighbor’s claims to the contrary. He talks of money coming soon yet doesn’t want to draw attention to his cinema business, but the professional, public, and domestic are intertwined with families living above the bustling marketplace. Fine dresses, fedoras, and vintage cars add to the quaint, however no one is who they seem thanks to grocers with an angle, Scotland Yard whispering of trouble abroad, and shadowed men with their backs to the camera conversing over promised payments. The innocuous movies, aquarium, and pet shop host seemingly innocent ingredients used for making bombs, and onscreen days of the week lie in wait while the public is occupied by the picture show, hoodwinked by what’s in plain sight. Creepy packages, trick bird cages, and threatening “sleeping with the fishes” coded messages become a tongue in cheek nod to the nature of cinema and hidden observations as covers are blown and men scatter. Our wife is clueless abut her husband and oblivious to her family being used for information, creating an interesting dynamic for her between the handsome detective and a damn cold, cruel husband. Who are behind these plans and why? Despite several great sequences, convenient plot points leave too many unanswered questions. The busy start is rough around the edges, meandering for half the movie before becoming eerily provocative as a child delivers a fatal ticking package in the middle of the crowded market. We know the route and the time – delaying for street sales, demonstration detours, and interfering parades ups the suspense alongside traffic jams, stoplights, and montages featuring clock tower gears, dangerous flammable film, our innocuous brown papered package, and the puppy on the bus next to it! A clock on every street corner checks each five minutes passing amid town criers, newsboys, crescendos, and clues in the film canister that go for the big shocker while silent visuals bring the threats home to the dinner table. Although I don’t think today we’d have a cartoon singing “Who killed Cock Robin?” but that might just be me.


The 39 Steps – Like Maugham’s Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don’t need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who’s picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.



I Married a Witch a Trickster Delight

By Kristin Battestella


While many adore the subsequent Bell Book and Candle or Bewitched, have had Peek A Boo hairstyles, or even know of Veronica Lake thanks to her sexy Oscar winning look-alike Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential; it seems not many today appreciate the 1942 magical romp that started it all, I Married a Witch.

Burned at the Salem Witch Trials thanks to the testimony of Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March), Jennifer (Veronica Lake) curses Wooley and all his male descendents to be unlucky in love. Centuries later when lightning strikes a tree and frees their spirits, Jennifer and her father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway) continue to interfere with politician Wallace Wooley (also March), his campaign for governor, and his impending marriage to socialite Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). Jennifer plans to make Wally fall in love with her just to ruin him. Unfortunately, when she is injured, Wally mistakenly gives her the love potion she intended for him. Now that she’s in love with a mortal, Daniel disastrously interferes on his daughter’s behalf. Jennifer, however, has bigger plans now: using witchcraft to save Wally’s campaign.


I’ll get the bit of the bad out of the way first, for only the dated production here hinders I Married a Witch. The black and white looks somewhat unrestored, dark and tough to see sometimes. The historical montage opening the film also has poor period stylings or seems quick and on the cheap. Modern audiences might also be a little lost on some of the thirties mannerisms and dialogue, and the sound is often tough to hear. While kids might enjoy this partial inspiration for the television series Bewitched, viewers with short attention spans might groan at early scenes with only smoke, fire, and old speaketh voiceovers. However, having said all that, the light-hearted comedy and hijinks of love story from director Rene Clair (The Flame of New Orleans, And Then There Were None) and writers Robert Pirosh (Combat!) and Marc Connelly (Captain Courageous) win with magical charm and innocent fun.

Well then, let’s talk about that peek a boo queen herself, Veronica Lake. Although the diminutive star of Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun for Hire doesn’t actually appear for the first fifteen minutes, we like the off-screen witch Jennifer when we hear of her fun curses. Despite her initial vengeance and maliciousness, we enjoy her vocal tricks and thus are thrilled when we finally do get so see those famous blonde tresses. Lake may seem a one trick pretty, but her witchy ways are delightful and her comedic dialogue is right on time. Though the pair seem visually at odds and she spends most of the time being carried by March; Lake has the sardonic match and onscreen weight to be a 290-year-old witch testing Wallys’ heart. Jennifer’s supposed to be bad, purely a spiteful witch causing love trouble for the sake of a long ago wrong, yet she’s whimsical and adorable all the same. Likewise, Oscar winner Frederic March (Best Years of Our Lives, Death of a Salesman, The Desperate Hours) proves he’s more than the straight, heavy, and serious dramatic leading man we so often enjoy. Wally’s wedding day hysterics are almost side splitting- caught in a repeatedly false starting ceremony and running ragged over two women! March would be the exceptional straight man indeed- if not for his perfect balance of witty, proper performance and humorous presence.


While Lake’s luster may have fallen over the decades, the budding and future Best Actress Susan Hayward (I Want to Live, Reap the Wild Wind) is wonderful as the snotty socialite set to marry Wally. Any other time, we’d love to pedestal Hayward, but in I Married a Witch, the audience can’t help but appreciate her bearing the brunt of Jennifer’s tricks. Dads Cecil Kellaway (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Robert Warwick’s (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) J.B. Masterson are also great fun as the at odds parents who similarly enough have their daughters- and thus their own- best interests at heart. Classic fashion and style lends a wonderful visual support, too. Not to be outdone by slim cut suits or tilted fedoras, the pre-war ladies’ costumes here are glorious. The lengthy gowns and puffy sleeves just add an extra touch of class not often found in today’s recreations. I Married a Witch was contemporary at the time, but now it is a wonderful period piece to us with great music, sweet looking cars, and great old houses. Sure, some of the flying brooms and objects moving by themselves look hokey, but most of the smoke and mirror effects are simplistically good. Thanks to a fine story and great performances, fancy effects aren’t required to suspend the belief needed for I Married a Witch.

Fans of the old school cast, classic films aficionados, or families looking for some wholesome witchy fun can certainly find a short 80 minutes for I Married a Witch. Naturally, it is full of pre-war magical innocence rather than proper Wicca motifs, but again, the delight here wins against any datedness of the time.

Kbatz: Dragonwyck

Frightening Flix

Dragonwyck A Spooky and Charming Little Old Film

By Kristin Battestella


I was a bit surprised when I stumbled upon this 1946 title starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, for I had never heard of it before. Based upon 1944 novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is a creepy little gothic tale of frightful mansions and murderous tendencies.

Miranda Wells (Tierney) dreams of bigger things than her family’s Connecticut farm, much to the chagrin of her devout parents Ephraim (Walter Houston) and Abigail (Anne Revere). When a letter arrives from Abigail’s distant and wealthy cousin Nicholas Van Ryan (Price), Miranda takes the offered opportunity to serve as companion to Nicholas’ daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) at the Van Ryan’s legendary Hudson Valley estate Dragonwyck. Once at the mansion, however, tales of hauntings, local unrest, and the uneven relationship between Nicholas and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) can’t deter Miranda from falling in love with Nicholas. But of course, he is married, and spends far too many nights in his secret tower room…

Though not a horror movie or thriller per se, Dragonwyck has many fearful moments and suspense-filled sequences, largely due to the simplest suggestions of intrigue. The black and white cinematography, creepy angles, spooky lighting, and haunting score by the famed Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won, The King and I, Camelot) give just the right amount of suggestion that not all is well at Dragonwyck. Screenwriter and first time director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra) makes great strides in giving us the basis of the novel’s complex time and place, but some sequences in Dragonwyck do seem ill edited. Quick references to a change of time and place aren’t enough to indicate the move-sometimes it seems like you’re watching a film ‘edited for content and cut to run in the time allotted.’ Thankfully, performance and story win out with the help of great costumes and gothic sets.


I don’t know much about Prince Aly Khan, except that he seemed to mentally ruin not one, but two Hollywood ladies- Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney. Perhaps more well known today for her many romances, Tierney (Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her To Heaven) was pretty and she could act. Maybe her beauty draws the viewer in, but Tierney’s expressions of innocence, naiveté, and love keep us interested in Miranda. We want her to find joy and happiness-even if the high society life at Dragonwyck clearly spells doom. Likewise, parents Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre) and Anne Revere (National Velvet, The Song of Bernadette) are stern and respectable parents with only the best interests at heart. Observant viewers will also see a young Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) as Peggy, the crippled Irish maid with a good heart.

It’s pretty plain to see that the ‘low’ farming folk have more values and morals than the ‘high’ Hudson folk, but Vivienne Osborne (Tomorrow at Seven) earns a piece of sympathy as Nicholas’ wife Johanna. She seems chubby and more interested in food than her daughter, but we feel that in some ways, this snotty style is not her fault. Her callous upbringing and lack of attention from her deceitful husband help blur the lines between this detailed look at the early Victorian lifestyle and Hudson society. But of course, Vincent Price (The Ten Commandments, The Pit and the Pendulum) plays a man who is not always what he seems. He’s thinner and more subdued than what we expect from the maniacal old horror maven to come in later films. Price’s Nicholas looks the waistcoat and top hat society man, we believe he can be respectable and a good love for Miranda-and yet we should know better. Price shows his range through Nicholas’ love, flagrant callousness, addictions, and other… nefarious… tendencies.

Dragonwyck is not a perfect film, and it is a little dated in some respects. Mankiewicz’ inexperience as a debut director also hampers some scenes. Nevertheless, gothic lovers and fans of classic suspense can enjoy Dragonwyck. Younger audiences may not understand some of the historical back-story about patroon landowners keeping tenant farmers in feudal like arrangements, but the spooky air is just right for a youthful scare or two. But of course, the DVD edition of Dragonwyck is now out of print. Thankfully, fans of Vincent Price can pick up a copy in several horror sets. It’s a strange placement, but fans of the cast and viewers who love a little bit of Bronte suspense will enjoy getting their hands on Dragonwyck. I’m tempted to find the book now, too!