Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943). Though he would sometimes demure at the question, this was typically the title Hitchcock offered up as his default answer when asked about his personal favorite among his hefty, dazzling oeuvre. I can’t really back him up on that, even though I can completely understand how this one would loom large for the Master. He’d made great films before this (The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, and Suspicion among them), but there’s something about this one that feels like the Hitchcock cinematic voice locked in for good. The film follows Charlie Newton (Joseph Cotten), a fellow who oozes menace simply lying in a tenement apartment bed. He tried to elude some unwelcome attention by venturing out to small town California to stay with his sister’s family, including his adoring niece (Teresa Wright) who’s named after him. The niece’s persistent interest in enlivening her humdrum, middle class life leads her to suspect that her uncle is guilty of some pronounced malfeasance, an instinct that is sound, which Hitchcock makes evident from the beginning. It’s a prime example of the director developing a film’s scariness not through jolts, but instead by making the danger abundantly clear and leaving the audience to twist with worry as to when the metaphorical bomb is going to go off. The film is greatly enhanced by the authorial touch of Thornton Wilder, whose Our Town Pulitzer still has some shine on it. He invests the characters with delicate, homespun touches, allowing for just a bit of devilish weirdness around the edges, such as the mundane neighbors (one of whom is played by Hume Cronyn in his feature debut) whose shared penchant for crime stories leads them to openly speculate about the methodology they’d use to off the other.
Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940). This showbiz drama betrays a lurking protofeminist heart as it unfolds its tale of competing showgirls, one of whom sashays her way to lucrative fame, bringing the other along to be humiliated on stage every night as a central part of the act. Lucille Ball plays the star who uses her sex appeal callously in pursuit of the limelight. It doesn’t necessarily stand with her best film performances, but it is another fascinating entry showing the contrast between the big screen persona she worked with and the daffy, wailing role that later made her a television legend. Maureen O’Hara is the “good girl,” and she’s fairly wooden until the moment when she unloads on a jeering audience with a shaming diatribe demanding respect, an especially jolting development given the era in which the film was made. Arzner, by some reckoning the only woman employed as a director by the Hollywood studios at the time, is more perfunctory than stylish in her filmmaking, but surely some of the film’s sharp, progressive undercurrent can be attributed directly to her.
Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971). There are a lot of familiar beats in Pakula’s thriller about a cop-playing-detective (the title character, played by Donald Sutherland) who befriends and romances a call girl (Jane Fonda) during his investigation into the disappearance of a friend. It clings tight to the trappings of detective fiction without having the audacity to unsettle its structure in the manner of other offerings from the era, such as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown. Years later, that can make it seem a little soft, a film being pushed forward and out of the way by a grand cinematic transformation rather than one leading the charge. Two aspects of the film distinguish it as vital. One is the remarkable cinematography by Gordon Willis, which includes shots of exquisite framing and striking images, proving that vivid beauty can be captured in garment factories and rundown apartments just as assuredly as on the open plain or some other vast landscape. The other is Jane Fonda’s justly-awarded performance as the call girl, combining wells of shrouded vulnerability with a brittle authority that consistently fascinates.
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2014). It’s not exactly the sort of film that Rod Serling might write if he were around today, but I’d like to think he’d be leading the standing ovation at its premiere. Byrkit’s feature debut centers on a dinner party. The relationships between the different attendees are laid out simply and clearly, especially those dented by troubled histories. There’s some idle talk about a passing comet in the night sky that’s brought out the metaphysical theorists. Then the lights go out. Sharing anything specific that happens beyond that point is borderline criminal. I will note that what follows is crafty, wise, playful, and often grimly funny. The film spurred from me the sort of giggles that only rise when I’m watching something I find to be brilliantly audacious. I’m convinced this is on of the best movies of the year.
Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012). The feature film debut of Tartakovsky, whose fingerprints spot some widely-adored cartoon television series (his involvement in “Just Another Manic Mojo” is enough cause to venerate him, as far as I’m concerned), is enjoyable enough, even if it winds up locked into the same predictable rut that has practically made “computer animated feature” a genre instead of means of storytelling. The conceit is at least clever, with Dracula responding to the threat of persistent angry villagers by retreating to construct a castle hotel where he can raise his daughter in isolated peace while also provided a safe haven for fellow monsters. The voice cast is populated by Adam Sandler and his usually band of marginally funny cronies (including Kevin James and David Spade), which does provide the pleasure of Steve Buscemi as a rhombus-shaped werewolf. Truthfully, I must concede this may be the best Sandler has ever been (and, yes, that includes his stabs at respectability in the likes of Punch Drunk Love and Funny People). He plays the character with conviction and consistency. Clearly, he should be locked alone in a recording studio more often.