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VAULTS: Friday night ‘Thrillers’ on TCM

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

"The Suspenseful World of Thrillers," a Turner Classic Movies' retrospective series on Friday nights in October, betrays a curious ring. At one time, the appropriate phrasing would have been "The World of Suspense Thrillers." At this late date, I'm inclined to feel grateful that it didn't come out extravagantly revamped and redundant; for example, "The Dark and Ominous World of Suspenseful and Thrilling Film Noir."

Invocations of "noir" seem to have been kept to a merciful minimum, even in the freshly minted one-hour documentary survey produced by TCM to introduce the series. Not that this miscellany lacks curious selection processes of its own. It doesn't reflect a systematic desire to showcase the 14 vintage movies in the series, which date from 1937 to 1978 and emphasize the 1940s more than any other decade. On the other hand, it does acknowledge the importance of Alfred Hitchcock, represented by four titles, including Friday's opening night double bill of "Rear Window" and "Shadow of a Doubt," bracketed with showings of "Thrillers."

The screenwriter-director David Koepp quips, "We pillage him to this day," while commenting on the Hitchcock influence. There's an interlude in which the most conspicuous pillager of the last generation, Brian DePalma, is discussed, but the disciple himself is not one of the interview subjects. His former film editor, Paul Hirsch, is.

Astutely, Mr. Hirsch points out one of the professional advantages of the genre: It facilitates stylistic invention, encouraging filmmakers to show off "the tricks of the trade," typically while inducing apprehension. "Shadow of a Doubt" is an exemplary suspense thriller as a whole, but it also illustrates how the context accommodates set-piece sequences as the plot unfolds. One clever, turning-point example depicts Teresa Wright hurrying across town to the public library at closing time in order to consult a newspaper, where a story about a national manhunt decisively casts suspicion on her family's houseguest, Joseph Cotton as beloved but homicidal Uncle Charlie.

There are participants in "Thrillers" who might be indispensable if talking about their own classics in the genre — for example, Paul Verhoeven, the director of "The Fourth Man," and Bryan Singer, the director of "The Usual Suspects." The catch: They seem to have been interviewed when preoccupied with "The Black Book" and "Valkyrie," respectively. These titles are meant to be relevant to the political-thrillers theme on Oct. 9, but the relevance may be limited to one movie scheduled for that evening, "The Boys from Brazil." Even then, there's rather more discussion of "The Marathon Man" during the documentary, so you're not quite sure why it didn't make the TCM cut as primo neo-Nazi thriller instead of "Boys."

It is amusing to hear the screenwriter of "Boys," Heywood Gould, at one point. He fondly recalls Grace Kelly as a Hitchcock heroine because he regards her as a case of "still waters running weird." It's also fun to hear Martin Landau "out" his character in "North by Northwest," the hatchetman Leonard, as a jealous homosexual, seething with enmity for Eva Marie Saint's character. Moreover, it's grandly gallant of him to call attention to Miss Saint's underrated versatility as an actress: He observes how desirably different she was in "On the Waterfront" and "North by Northwest." Well, shouldn't "North by Northwest" take a bow in the series? Maybe, but it's not on the calendar.

Though not as plentiful as they might be, the finalists are legitimately suspense thrillers. Another strong point within this selection: The best of the bunch excel at simulating an eerie intimacy with psychopathic personalities. This emphasis begins with Mr. Cotten's menacing visitor in "Shadow of a Doubt," incorporates Angela Lansbury as the maternal monster of "The Manchurian Candidate" and Robert Mitchum as the crazed pseudo-preacher of "The Night of the Hunter" before concluding with a triple flourish in the final program, which revisits Anthony Perkins in "Psycho," Charles Boyer in "Gaslight" and Robert Montgomery in "Night Must Fall."

Since we're approaching the 75th anniversary of "Night Must Fall" as a theatrical sensation (the contemporary movie version was shot two years later at MGM), it might be fitting if a DVD edition finally appeared. A 1964 remake with Albert Finney isn't available in the U.S. either. It's a little surprising no one mounted a remake for Edward Norton in the immediate aftermath of "Primal Fear."

The play's author, Emlyn Williams, contrived it as a hit vehicle for himself at the age of 30. In the process, he seems to have narrowed the distance between spectators and menace, suggesting a sense of complicity that remains exceptionally sinister. Did it influence novelist Thomas Harris to keep fiddling diabolically with Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling?

Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell are compelling as the Williams forerunners, the deadly opportunist Danny and the morbidly susceptible poor relation Olivia, whose resentment of her rich, contemptuous aunt (also formidable in the person of May Whitty) could prove a portal to damnation. The play was willing to contemplate Olivia as the potential soulmate to a monster. The movie preferred to rescue her from a fatal affinity, though not before proving an accessory to something evil. "Night Must Fall" still packs an insidious psychological wallop. Watching Danny operate up close and confidential is a powerful argument for resisting all overtures that smack of lies and derangement.