By Robert K. Lightning.
Seeking to identify signature elements in Joan Harrison’s and Alma Reville’s work but also intertextual correspondences between their independent work and their collaborations with Hitchcock….”
In August of 2021, New York’s Film Forum resumed its pre-closure series “The Women Behind Hitchcock”, a series devoted to examining the work of director Alfred Hitchcock’s female collaborators, focusing primarily on the two most consistent members of his creative team, his wife Alma Reville (a screenwriter and former film editor) and Joan Harrison (his former secretary and future Hollywood producer). Because of more pressing obligations, my hope to see most of the scheduled films in the theater quickly diminished and, as a consequence, most were seen (using series programmer Bruce Goldstein’s schedule as a guide) via Internet platforms. (The drawback to this viewing choice was my inability to find certain titles on the Internet, such as Miles Manders’ The First Born, on which Reville collaborated). I limited my viewing choices to films with which I was unfamiliar or those which are rarely discussed. Seeking to identify signature elements in Harrison’s and Reville’s work but also intertextual correspondences between their independent work and their collaborations with Hitchcock, the following article contains my observations on the films I viewed. (Films are discussed primarily in the order in which they were viewed).
It’s in the Bag! (Richard Wallace, 1945) was co-scripted by Alma Reville and is the only Hollywood film that wasn’t directed by her husband for which she received any credit. It also marks one of the few screen appearances of radio star Fred Allen, providing perhaps the fullest onscreen display of his subtly sarcastic and absurdist humor. Much of the film’s considerable hilarity derives from Allen’s voice-over commentary on the on-screen proceedings (there is apparently a version without voice-over) which essentially approximates the experience of listening to one of his radio broadcasts. (Voice-over may have been decided upon in post-production to add humor to the film’s drier spots. It may also have served other strategic purposes: much of Allen’s exchange with Pansy Nussbaum – a heavily accented Jewish character from Allen’s radio show – is hidden by voice-over, the exchange’s ethnic humor possibly giving producers retrospective pause). With its irreverent regard for the American nuclear family, Bag owes a lot to such W.C. Fields’ vehicles as It’s a Gift (Norman McLeod, 1934) and The Bank Dick (Edward F. Cline, 1940), both parodies of homespun America. It’s in the Bag! might have been conceived as a similar showcase for Allen’s brand of humor.
Reville quite possibly came to It’s in the Bag! by way of the film’s producer, Jack Skirball, who had previously produced her husband’s 1942 Saboteur (on which she may have collaborated behind the scenes) and his 1943 Shadow of a Doubt (for which she received credit as screenwriter). But there are elements within the narrative which clearly would have recommended Reville for this assignment, not least of these being the film’s juxtaposition of murder and humor, elements familiar from her husband’s films. Deriving from the film’s source material (Ilf and Petrov’s novel The Twelve Chairs), there is also the narrative importance of a valuable set of chairs, heirlooms sold for quick cash which later need to be retrieved, as in the Reville-scripted Suspicion (also in the series). Finally, Reville’s humorous (and affectionate) treatment of the American petit bourgeois family in Shadow of a Doubt finds similar expression in It’s in the Bag!. (Shadow’s rendering of the small-town community as a collection of oddballs might be thought to parallel Allen’s parody of the insular American community in the “Allen’s Alley” segments of his radio show).
While Margaret Kennedy and Basil Dean are credited with adapting Kennedy’s bestselling novel The Constant Nymph into a 1928 film (Adrian Brunel, UK), Alma Reville is given screen credit for continuity arrangement which, given the cinematic nomenclature of that period, would seem to imply that she was responsible for the arrangement of scenes and shots in the script. As with the Hitchcock-directed, Reville-scripted Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt and the 1950 Stage Fright (also in the series), the film is concerned with the psycho-sexual development of a young woman as she negotiates the Oedipus. The point of Kennedy’s (adolescent? teen?) heroine, however, is that she resists this process. An important symbolic figure in Western culture (that reaches something of an apotheosis in the films of Audrey Hepburn), the nymph typically suffers unrequited love (like the mythological Echo) for an older man for whom she functions as muse or helpmate. Through the moving performances of Ivor Novello and Mabel Poulton in the lead roles, director Brunel provides an affectingly romantic interpretation of this transgenerational romance, the heroine’s eventual death conceived as grand tragedy. (Poulton’s touching performance contrasts somewhat with Joan Fontaine’s in the 1943 adaptation where, under Edmund Goulding’s direction, Fontaine provides a more alienating interpretation of the heroine, allowing the viewer more critical distance). Given the film’s attitude toward its source material, so antithetical to Hitchcock’s sexual politics, the film’s only discernable relationship to Hitchcock’s films is as an inversion of the typical Hitchcock romance: compare his critical treatment of the transgenerational romance in Rebecca. (Those more familiar with Reville’s British films without Hitchcock may find significant correspondences between those films and It’s in the Bag! and The Constant Nymph. On a side note, Elsa Lanchester makes an energetic late appearance in Nymph).
As Alma Reville and Joan Harrison collaborated on its script, Hitchcock’s 1941 Suspicion provides me a convenient transition to the films of producer Harrison. But Suspicion also merits consideration as one of the most influential films of the 40s. If Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca (also Harrison-scripted) introduces the primary components of that cycle of films Thomas Elsaesser named the “Freudian-Feminist Melodrama” (inexperienced bride, mysterious husband, “the house”), Suspicion introduces to the cycle the prospect of the husband’s physical threat to or murder of the heroine. In addition, I’ve been able to discern its influence on films as diverse as Vincent Sherman’s 1944 Mr. Skeffington (the theme of masochism) and Lang’s 1956 masterpiece Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (I explore the relationship of Suspicion and Beyond in my essay “Vindication of an Heiress”) (1). So, it isn’t surprising to find that Suspicion and the Harrison-produced They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel, 1947) share common elements, from their similar musical scores to their plots revolving around the marriage of an opportunistic male to a wealthier woman. The influence of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) upon They Won’t can also be identified: the hero of each takes advantage of unforeseen circumstances (including convenient deaths); when his fortunes reverse, he tends to blame fate; and (as a consequence of these traits) he is an unreliable narrator. (Detour‘s impact upon They Won’t may have been more direct than is implied by ‘influence’: both films employ a flashback structure and both use out-of-focus closeups to transition to flashbacks and flashforwards).
They Won’t opens with an imposing shot of a city’s justice center and then proceeds to a courtroom, a setting recalling both Harrison’s work on Rebecca and anticipating her Eye Witness (Robert Montgomery, 1950), which opens with a similar shot. As much as the policier and detective fiction, courtroom dramas are concerned with providing a solution to a crime. Thus, They Won’t shares a common theme – investigation – with several other Harrison-produced films (Phantom Lady, Nocturne, Eye Witness, Circle of Danger). Additionally, the process of solving crime in an investigative narrative (or the judicial process in courtroom dramas) often functions as a metaphor for the psychoanalytic investigation of transgressive behavior, criminal and otherwise. This is certainly the case with They Won’t’s Larry Ballentine (Robert Young), on trial for the murder of his wife but whose indisputable transgression is caddishness: he habitually exploits women. This narrative focus substantiates the film’s intertextuality with Suspicion and Detour, both of which also explore the psychology of the cad. (It is worth noting that the 1946 Harrison-produced Nocturne opens with the murder of a cad and lothario. Nocturne was also in the series). World War II certainly produced its cultural effects: I would argue (for instance) that the undomesticated hero of Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944) and its derivatives represents a general social disquiet regarding the return of rootless war veterans. Although it is beyond the purposes of this article, it would be worth investigating the specific historical determinants that generated these cultural interrogations of “the cad.”
In contrast to They Won’t’s complex narrative structure and its in-depth character analysis (it may very well be a masterpiece), Harrison’s 1949 Eye Witness (also known as Your Witness) is a relatively straight-forward and entertaining courtroom drama. Like some of Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures’ productions following the war, it was filmed (at least in part) in England and distributed by Warner Bros. Directed by and starring Robert Montgomery, it provides additional evidence of the actor-director’s transformation from smart-alecky juvenile/romantic lead in the 1930s to smart-alecky tough guy in the 1940s. (A skillful performer, I find his glib and cocky persona a bit alienating). The script was written by blacklisted writer Hugo Butler (whose John Berry-directed films From This Day Forward and He Ran All the Way are personal favorites) and Ian Hunter. Signaling its hero’s brash Americanness even before his introduction, the film opens on a shot of cavernous Lower Manhattan backed by a vigorous bop score before transitioning to a courtroom, where we witness lawyer Montgomery’s cunning victory in a criminal case. The film is concerned with the cultural conflict generated by his return to England to defend a British comrade from the war. Even if it is predictable which culture will come out on top, the film isn’t entirely unfair to the English who, whether intentionally or not, provide a favorable contrast to Montgomery’s American smugness. (Judge Felix Aylmer’s dry wit is a bonus). As in Montgomery’s 1947 Lady in the Lake (in which he also starred), his love interest must prove beyond the shadow of a doubt her trustworthiness (and, by implication, her virtue) to earn Montgomery’s trust and commitment. (The film also contains an early screen appearance by Stanley Baker).
Justice, maintaining the wartime alliance of America and Great Britain, and the reconciliation of two cultures are also the themes of the Harrison-produced Circle of Danger (Jacques Tourneur, 1950). (Another Harrison-Montgomery collaboration, 1947’s Ride the Pink Horse, was also in the series and is also concerned with the reconciliation of two cultures, the U.S. and Mexico. Unlike Eye Witness, however, neither the film nor the Montgomery hero can ultimately abandon a superior attitude toward the alien culture depicted). Other elements unite Eye Witness and Circle of Danger: they were produced by the same company (Coronado) and the same executive producer (David E. Rose); each film begins in the U.S. but most of the film takes place in (and is shot in) Great Britain. (Circle provides a tour of postwar Britain, beginning in England, moving on to Wales and concluding in Scotland). They also share identical plots: an American with close ties to someone living in Britain, travels there to investigate a mysterious death. (The casting of the British-born Ray Milland as the hero may have been intentionally ironic, providing an extra-diegetic hint of the film’s ultimate cultural alliance). Finally, in both films Anglo-American relations are eventually cemented (to paraphrase one character in Circle) through the hero’s romance with a British woman. (Patricia Roc in Circle, who had also worked with director Tourneur in his 1946 Canyon Passage).
But the two films are not identical and if any pair of films was testament to the continuing relevance of auteurism, this is the pair. Montgomery’s Eye Witness is mildly chauvinistic in one sense of the word (American norms triumph over British norms) and indulges its hero’s chauvinism (his love interest must be proven completely virtuous to be worthy of his commitment) in the other sense. The film’s privileging of American norms seems to me to align with Montgomery’s postwar political sympathies (he was a friendly witness before HUAC) as the film’s hegemonic masculinity aligns with the sexual politics expressed in Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1947), where the film’s heroine abandons her previous goals and beliefs and successfully transforms herself to the hero’s liking. (A similar, unsuccessful transformation of the Mexican girl who loves Montgomery takes place in Ride the Pink Horse). To be fair, patriotism and gender bias were virtually reflexive positions in popular culture of the period. On the other hand, these positions have never been guaranteed in popular culture. I note them merely as signature elements in Montgomery’s films.
Circle seems initially aligned with Eye Witness’s politics. The captain of a salvage ship come to Britain to investigate the death of his brother (killed during the war while serving with the British), Milland seems an even more suspicious and belligerent investigator than Montgomery. (An early scene on his ship is one of the few scenes where familiar Tourneur atmospherics materialize). Expanding upon the Montgomery character’s patriarchal gender bias, the Milland hero’s heteronormative sexual bias is explicit: encountering a character from the ‘queer’ world of the theater, he describes him contemptuously as a “freak.” We would not expect such a macho character to be indulged by the director of I Walked with a Zombie (where the patriarchal male is depicted as monstrously oppressive and ultimately responsible for his wife’s zombie state) or Out of the Past (where the hero’s attempts to master both a woman and his environment are systematically demolished) and, happily, he isn’t. Milland’s investigation exposes not only his younger brother’s misguided heroics during the war but also his own misguided influence on the formation of his brother’s character. The American must finally face the negative effect of his biases at the climax, masterfully staged by Tourneur on a foggy landscape, his directorial skills much in evidence through the dramatic use of actor positioning and the wide-angle lens. Circle of Danger is perhaps a minor work from Tourneur (though I think of greater interest than his 1956 Nightfall) but I think a worthy one. (This film was reportedly shortened by distributors when released. I watched one version on YouTube. I’m not sure which version was shown during Film Forum’s series)
Although the series’ focus was primarily on Harrison and Reville, the impact on Hitchcock’s work of other creative women was also explored through the screening of such films as The Birds (1963, from a short story by Daphne du Maurier), Marnie (1964, screenplay by Jay Presson Allen), Rear Window and Vertigo (1954 and 1958 respectively, both costumed by Edith Head), all much-discussed, much-screened and readily-available titles. Shadow of a Doubt was screened in recognition of Alma Reville’s contribution to the screenplay but also that of Sally Benson, author of the story collections Junior Miss (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1942). But because Shadow was also a familiar title, I decided to play amateur programmer and viewed instead the rarely-discussed screen adaptation of Junior Miss (George Seaton, 1945), which would have made a fascinating contribution to the series, not only because of Benson’s prior collaboration with Hitchcock but because in their various cultural iterations (magazine series, collection of those magazine stories, hit Broadway play, Hollywood movie, radio series) Benson’s Junior Miss stories reflect both contemporary and long-standing notions regarding bourgeois daughterhood, a unifying theme in Benson’s writing. In addition, the very funny Junior Miss not only recalls any number of Hollywood family comedies (MGM’s Andy Hardy series comes to mind) in its focus on the nuclear family but anticipates television sitcoms in many details. (Benson’s stories were adapted more than once into radio series). The film features, for instance, the standard sitcom figure of the father’s overbearing boss, a figure who usurps the father’s authority within the home whenever he is present and whose ultimate control of the family’s income bestows upon family members the obligation to please him. (With disturbing frankness, the film suggests that the boss’s fixation on its adolescent protagonist’s physical development is redolent of the medieval droit du seigneur). There is also the figure of the intrusive neighbor and family friend, here the protagonist’s ‘woke’ best friend Fuffy, played hilariously by Barbara Whiting. Junior Miss helps to illustrate how unwaveringly consistent are depictions of the American nuclear family, a reflection of the tenacity of the bourgeois notions which undergird those representations.
As for her explorations of daughterhood, Benson’s model would seem to be Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), which provides the classic analysis of that period of young womanhood between girlhood and the onslaught of compulsory marriage, a period when the bourgeois daughter (impeded from entry into the institutions of male power and knowledge and not required to do much of anything) may take refuge in the realm of her imagination in trying to make sense of the world. (It goes without saying that her class affiliation forecloses the necessity of her entering the world of work). There she may experience a compensatory power in imagined insights into the lives of others, a power she exercises in attempts to manipulate the inhabitants of her social environment. Like Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, Esther Smith (in Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, the film adaptation of Benson’s stories) and Judy Graves (Junior Miss) express that power through matchmaking schemes, often with potentially disastrous results.(2) The bourgeois daughter’s powers of imagination may even extend beyond matchmaking to wish-fulfillment fantasies as illustrated by Shadow of a Doubt’s Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright), a recent high-school graduate who imagines she can communicate telepathically with her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) and has summoned him to her home town. But this only indicates the depth of the daughter’s frustration at finding an outlet for her energies: the greater the frustration, the more fantastic the excursion into the imagination. (In this context, it is important to note that Charlie not only excelled at debating in school but was considered the “smartest girl in her class”)
Aside from some obvious differences (the posher social world of privileged Manhattanites depicted in Junior Miss), the parallels between Junior Miss and Shadow are striking. Like Charlie, Judy Graves (Peggy Ann Garner) constructs fantasies around her mother’s brother, a virtual stranger to the daughter and thus a figure ideally suited to engage her fantasies. Judy imagines her uncle a criminal; Charlie fantasizes her uncle as the family’s ‘savior.’ Both discover not only that their romantic notions regarding that uncle are completely wrong (Judy’s uncle is not a criminal but a recovering alcoholic; Charlie’s uncle is a serial killer) but that his formerly-desired presence now threatens the family’s livelihood (due to Judy’s matchmaking, the uncle secretly marries the daughter of her father’s boss and, when it all comes to light, her father is fired; the potential revelation of Uncle Charlie’s criminality threatens the family’s reputation and hence both its social standing and the father’s job). Each girl rises to the occasion and saves the family (Judy’s first date is with the son of a prominent businessman and, as a consequence, the father’s job is restored; Charlie ‘kills’ her uncle). If the films’ structural correspondences evidence Benson’s presence, the inversion of certain elements (the uncles’ respective relationships to criminality; the jubilant tone of Junior’s conclusion versus the flatness of Shadow’s) testify to the dialectical relationship between the Hollywood genres, here the family comedy and the thriller: the conventions of one genre make possible the imagining of possibilities correspondingly repressed by the conventions of the other.
Junior Miss’s resonant cultural value is further demonstrated by its representation of the fragility of bourgeois social stability, a theme common to the texts referenced here. Judy Graves’ and Emma Woodhouse’s seemingly innocuous matchmaking (or Emma’s thoughtless faux pas at a picnic) prove as potentially destabilizing of the heroine’s social world as a move to New York City (Meet Me in St. Louis) or the revelation that a family member is a serial killer. Junior Miss is also shockingly blunt about the daughter’s function as barter in restoring social stability: Judy’s first date not only initiates her into heteronormativity but (as noted) also insures the family’s solvency. This event, approved by the father and celebrated by the entire clan, implicitly refers to the practice of arranged marriage, the text again revealing the tenacity of bourgeois norms and their traditional functions.
1. Lightning, Robert K. (2014). “Vindication of an Heiress: Surprise revelation, alienation effect, and persona in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,” Film International, filmint.nu, Aug. 18, 2014.
2. Of course, this description will not quite do for Judy Garland’s Esther Smith, who might be more accurately described as taking a healthy interest in her future domesticity through her active pursuit of ‘the boy next door’.
Robert K. Lightning is a New York City-based film and media critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.