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TIME (16/Feb/1987) - The ghost of Alfred Hitchcock

(c) TIME (16/Feb/1987)

The ghost of Alfred Hitchcock

The question nags at directors of suspense movies: What would Hitch have done? Like Walt Disney with cartoons, Alfred Hitchcock was thought not just to have invented a film genre but to have patented it. His trademarks -- the mortician's wit, the danse-macabre pacing, the elegant economy of his editing -- entertained moviegoers and enlightened moviemakers for a half-century. It's not that nobody did it better, but that everybody did it his way. Everybody still does. Almost seven years after his death, Hitchcock's bluff majesty continues to influence and intimidate all those who would make crime pictures. The master is dead; long live the mystery film -- but in his portly shadow. He is the ghost of thrillers past and thrillers yet to come, and he haunts his successors as surely as Mother Bates kept spooking poor Norman. For a time after his death, Hollywood fell into a reverent silence on the subject of thrillers. The few bright children of Hitchcock's style, such as Brian De Palma (Dressed to Kill) and John Carpenter (Christine), were toiling in the fetid cellar of shock tactics; they took their cue from the gore and funereal fun of Psycho, not the narrative crisscrossing of Strangers on a Train. De Palma and Carpenter were only serving their audience. The music- video generation was disinclined to track the intricacies of a well-made plot. Those tame pleasures were best left to TV sleuths and their fogy fans. Then, in 1985, Jagged Edge appeared. It was predictable and crudely made, but it was an old-fashioned mystery movie with courtroom dueling, shifting romantic allegiances, an imperiled heroine and the lure of suave menace. More important, Jagged Edge was a hit, which convinced Hollywood that the thriller genre could once again be a moneymaker. So here are three new mystery movies in a familiar tradition: Arthur Penn's Dead of Winter, Curtis Hanson's The Bedroom Window and Bob Rafelson's Black Widow. All three films are tales of an innocent person drawn into a web of complicity and accused of murder. All three trade in multiple female identities and tease the viewer into hoping the heroine will take one more step in the dark. Now for the differences. Winter is a dud in a handsome shell. Window has a cunning plot but not much craft. Widow rides smoothly on Hitchcockian tracks until it finds its own detours of style and psychology. Hitchcock's Rope begins with a brutal murder performed by two homoerotic psychopaths. Dead of Winter could be the events leading up to that crime. Dr. Lewis (Jan Rubes) is an elderly psychiatrist; Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowall) is his aide-de-camp in blackmailing. As part of their scheme to defraud a wealthy ( woman, they hire an actress, Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen), to impersonate the woman's dead sister. Katie doesn't realize she is taping a video ransom note. Ever conscientious, she tells her sly captors, "I'm gonna take a beat after the line 'There was blood everywhere.' " Soon enough, there is. Also mousetraps and bear traps, corpses in the attic and the bedroom, the glass of milk from Suspicion and the severed finger from The 39 Steps. Penn, who could direct this stuff in his sleep, hasn't. The director of Bonnie and Clyde and the Broadway thriller Wait Until Dark still knows how to slap a scene to life. In the triple role of a dead woman, her scheming sister and the plucky gal who must literally act to save her own life, Steenburgen finds a few shadings in each caricature. But the script (by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone) begins with intrigue, caroms into implausibility and finally sinks the film. Dead of Winter is like an all-frills flight: good service and a smooth ride, but at the end you find you've gone nowhere. And The Bedroom Window is like a bus ride through Wonderland. The direction is bumpy, but the plot, from Anne Holden's novel The Witnesses, is reverberant in twists and implications. Terry Lambert (Steve Guttenberg) is having an affair with his boss's wife Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert). Through her lover's window she sees a punk (Brad Greenquist) attack a young woman, Denise (Elizabeth McGovern). To protect Sylvia, Terry tells the police he witnessed the assault. But the road to jail is paved with good intentions. Soon Terry is a fugitive, and both Sylvia and Denise are prey to a wily killer. Classic Hitchcock in skeletal form: the setting of Rear Window; the mama's-boy murderer from Strangers on a Train; and even a fashionable switch of identities from Vertigo and Marnie. There are other rewards in this low- rent thriller. Guttenberg is no one's nominee for an '80s Cary Grant, but his frat-boy smile freezes nicely when he realizes he is suspected of murder. Until she must act the trollop to entice the killer, McGovern makes for an agreeably matter-of-fact heroine. If only there were a little sleek skin on the bones of this plot. The visuals are the pictorial equivalent of Dragnet prose; they offer just the facts, ma'am, but no sizzle, irony or insight. So The Bedroom Window looks like a peculiar tribute to Hitchcock: an exercise in style without the style. Black Widow has style to spare. Its images are opulent, chic, seductive: ! recumbent nudes framed by a fireplace, or a couple of perfect bodies meeting in a night-lighted swimming pool. At times the film seems to believe that no thriller can be too rich or too thin. But there is dark substance lurking here, like the avidity and contempt hidden in the all-American smile of its honeyed, moneyed murderer. That would be Catharine (Theresa Russell), who marries and fatally poisons some of the richest men in the world. Maybe she loves them, almost as much as she loves their portfolios. They certainly love her, and they pay for that commitment with their lives and fortunes. What is this delicate musk that Catharine radiates? Perhaps the scent of fulfillment through risk. And why does it attract Alex Barnes (Debra Winger), a deskbound fed who determines to track Catharine down? The guys at the office, with their C.P.A. faces and helpful hands, share a big-brotherly lech for the hardest-working gal in law biz. But Alex has no emotional life, no obsession but her work. When she discovers that Catharine has the same fixation -- except that her work is murder for profit -- Alex finds a freer, more dangerous part of herself. Could she become her own evil twin? Catharine would like the world to think so. Ronald Bass's clever script never apologizes for Catharine, never explains her. It knows, as Alex does, that "nobody knows why anybody does anything." And Rafelson, in his snazziest stint since Five Easy Pieces (1970), locates meaning in each thrill and frill. He gives Supporting Players Nicol Williamson and James Hong juicy vignettes. He gives Winger a role that taps her smarts, humor and goofy-gorgeous smile. And he gives Russell the movie. In the past she has mainly graced the films of her husband Nicolas Roeg. Here she emerges as a golden girl with looks that kill. Separately, Russell and Winger make movie history: a detective and a villain, both women. Together, they fuse as a feminist femme fatale. The titles of these Hitchcock knock-offs may be as confusing as the identities of a slinky serial killer. Winter? Window? Widow? Which is the winner? Easy: the one with Winger. Of the recent thrillers that measure themselves against the old Master of Suspense, Black Widow is the one that measures up.

Richard Corliss