The 39 Steps (1935)
★★★ / ★★★★
Loosely based on the novel by John Buchan and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was about a man named Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) on the run to prove his innocence after a woman (Lucie Mannheim) who was staying with him told him bits of information about the 39 Steps and was then killed. I’ve read that this was Hitchcock’s first international success in the film industry and I believed it showed. Even though it wasn’t as strong as some of my personal favorites from Hitchcock (“North by Northwest,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Notorious”), this was where he introduced some of the elements that he used in his later films to produce such powerful force of human drama and adrenaline-fueled (yet astute) action sequences. In this picture, I loved how the story would evolve in a matter of minutes or by saying key lines or two. I also admired how the director chose to end a scene, despite it lasting only thirty seconds or so, right when he finished getting his point across. With thrillers (and movies in general) today, many scenes are dragged on which contributes to running times of two hours or more. In “The 39 Steps,” although the movie was under an hour and thirty minutes, it was efficient with its time so it was able to accomplish so much. It actually treats its audiences like intelligence people instead of simplifying everything; the depths and implications in the story allowed us to identify with the characters as we questioned ourselves what would we have done when placed in the same situations. Yet at the same time, this film achieved most thrillers could not: it was comedic. Don’t get me wrong, the comedy did not get in the way of its tone. It’s just that funny things happen when people panic and placed in very desperate situations. Such amusing scenes happened whenever Richard and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) were on screen because they had such chemistry but they did not like each other from the moment they met on the train. It goes without saying that I’m giving “The 39 Steps” a solid recommendation because the way it explored its themes and characters was beyond its time. Another reason was it was downright entertaining. Don’t let the black and white fool you because it was actually able to use shadows to its advantage–like the best noir films in the 1940s and the 1950s.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Adapted from a play by Frederick Knott and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Dial M for Murder” is a top-notch thriller about a husband (Ray Milland) who plots to kill his own wife (Grace Kelly) so that he could inherit all of her money. The wife is having an affair with a writer (Robert Cummings) and the two are so close to telling the husband about their relationship, totally unaware of the fact that the husband has his own suspicions. I love how meticulous this film was when it comes to its pacing and detail so that everything made sense in the end. I noticed that the movie was divided into three parts: the first thiry minutes was how the husband essentially forced another man (Anthony Dawson) to kill his wife, the next thirty-five minutes was the actual murder and the first couple of twists in the story, and the last thiry-five minutes was how the good guys tried to capture the villian of the story. The question is, considering this is a Hitchcock film, will they succeed? Most of the picture was shot indoors, which reminded me of Hitchcock’s other film called “Rope,” but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. In fact, I think it worked in its favor because the audiences really got the chance to not only get very familiar with the scene of the crime but also play detective when one very curious and astute inspector (John Williams) suspected foul play. I also enjoyed the fact that Milland’s character was very smart so catching him was no easy feat. With most thrillers nowadays, they succumb to big chase scenes with violence (which can be pretty entertaining) but this one relied more on the subtleties of the characters’ actions and the dialogue between them. There were times when even I was lost because I kept trying to keep up with what a particular character wants to prove or suggest to another. Eventually, however, everything comes to light and there was a nice twist in the end that even I didn’t see coming. I’ve seen most of Hitchcock’s pictures and I have to say that this one is one of the most fun to watch because I really do love movies with a lot of talking. It also helped that the film had a certain sureness about itself so I was absolutely fascinated with how it would all turn out. If you love Hitchcock’s films and have not seen this one, do yourself a favor and watch it now.
Long Weekend (1978)
★ / ★★★★
“Nature Strikes Back” movies are interesting to me because it offers a different kind of horror. There’s no serial killer running around trying to kill half-naked teenagers and there’s no religious people trying to call an exorcist because of a demonic possession. Unfortunately, “Long Weekend” doesn’t impress on any level for several reasons. Most importantly, the couple (John Hargreaves and Briony Behets) who go on a camping trip near the beach are very unlikeable. The first scene they shared, they couldn’t help but bicker. They bickered on the way to the beach. And they bickered at the beach when weird things started happening. Instead of teaming up and putting their differences aside, they actively chose to blame one another for the things that were going wrong. I got so tired of it to the point where I wanted to shake them and tell them to shut up because they were damaging my ear drums. I actually wanted nature to kill them off so that I could get some peace and quiet. I would have cared so much more about the characters (and rooted for them) if they took care of nature and appreciated its beauty, yet for some reason nature was out to get them. I’m not sure if Everett De Roche, the writer, and Colin Eggleston, the director, were trying to be serious or campy. Either way, they succeeded in neither because the acting, tone and storytelling were subpar. Now, movies about nature suddenly going crazy and going on crazy rampages could work. For instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” is one of my favorites. But this one felt like there was no brain behind it all and the scares involving the animals attacking were downright laughable. (Advice: If the animal looks really fake, don’t go for close-ups.) Just when I thought it was about to be successful at building suspense (the creature hiding in the water as Hargreaves goes swimming was pretty effective), a character does something so stupid so I’m taken out of that precious moment of feeling concerned about what would happen next. As cautionary tales go, the lesson is very obvious: treat nature with respect. But as far as horror movies go, Australia’s “Long Weekend” was more like a very long movie I wished would end after the first thirty minutes.
Road Games (1981)
★★★ / ★★★★
Stacy Keach plays a truck driver who likes to play games on the road with his dingo companion in order to eliminate some of the boredom of long drives across Australia. After hearing about a serial killer on the loose who cuts up and disposes bodies all over the place, Keach begins to suspect a man who drives a green vehicle. Since the two stopped in the same area for the night, Keach sees the mysterious potential killer watching the garbage being collected very early in the morning. (As his dog sniffs the garbage bag of interest in an attempt to get food.) Jamie Lee Curtis plays the hitchhiker who Keach picks up and who is eventually taken by the killer. I’ve read from other reviews that Richard Franklin, the director, was a very big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Being a fan myself, watching this movie was that much more fun for me because I actively looked for certain shots and twists in the story that could reference to Hitchcock’s works. But even if one is not familiar with Hitchcock’s movies, one could still enjoy this psychological thriller because of the suspenseful false alarms and eventual real dangers that the characters had to face. I thought “Roadgames” was very different from other movies about killers on the road (especially American movies of the same set-up). Franklin took the time to establish Keach and Curtis’ characters before really getting into the scares. They talked and formed a genuine connection, so when the two were finally on the killer’s tracks, we couldn’t help but care and wonder whether they really were on the right track and whether or not they would eventually get caught. My favorite scene was when Keach investigated the number of meat in the back of his truck. That scene was done so well because at first I had no idea what he was thinking. But when I finally caught up on why he was so worried, I was so disturbed and I could remember saying out loud that he should get out of the truck as soon as possible. My heart raced so fast because the camera just lingered there as if something was about to go seriously wrong. The scene after that was also very impressive–very Hitchcockian–the way the character got into his own head and trying to persuade himself that everything was alright (which, of course, was not the case). “Roadgames” is now considered a cult classic cat-and-mouse movie and I believe it still holds up today. I wish more people would see this because it did many things that were so unexpected. Instead of simplifying things for the audience, it actually tried to outsmart us which I found to be very refreshing even though it was released back in 1981.