Rear Window (1954)

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Grace Kelly had one hour to choose between returning to work with Alfred Hitchcock or taking the part of the girl in On the Waterfront. She chose this. And a good thing too, because it was written with her in mind. At the director’s suggestion, radio writer John Michael Hayes had got to know her on and off the set of Dial M for Murder and designed the role adapted from a story by Cornell Woolrich around Kelly’s authentic persona and that of his wife, a former model. It was by working with Hitchcock that Kelly learned to work with her whole body. He listened to her and she loved his jokes – they shared a filthy sense of humour. She plays Lisa Carol Fremont, a high society NYC mover and shaker who’s in love with photojournalist James Stewart, stuck looking out his window at his neighbours’ apartments while laid up with a broken leg. She’s desperately in love with him but he wants to get rid of her – then she becomes a gorgeous Nancy Drew when he suspects one of his neighbours has murdered his wife. Only then does he realise what he’s got. She’s the action girl of his dreams. When you go to Paramount Studios you can see the four-wall facility that Hitchcock used to create the biggest set built there but sadly nothing remains of this paean to onanism, voyeurism, narcissism and whatever other perversion you’re having yourself. Oh, and scopophilia. In theory, this is all about Stewart but really it’s all about Kelly – and the biggest joke here of course is that the most beautiful woman in the world wants him and he doesn’t get it. Not really. Not until she becomes a part of the unfolding events he watches through his viewfinder. Kelly’s entrance is probably the greatest afforded any movie star. Her costumes alone tell a great story. MGM never knew what to do with her so loaning her out wasn’t a problem.  The theatre owners knew who the real star of the film was – and put her name up on their marquees above anyone else’s. Audiences adored her. She was the biggest thing in 1954. And this witty, clever study of a man afraid of marriage is for most people Hitchcock’s greatest achievement. For more on Kelly’s collaborations with Hitchcock, which are the peak of both their careers, and the high point of midcentury cinema, you can see my essay Hitchcock/Kelly at Canadian journal Offscreen:

The Country Girl (1954)

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This is the film that earned Grace Kelly her Best Actress Academy Award and nowadays her performance looks better than ever:  look at what she has to do. She plays the dowdy, dependable but once glamorous wife of faded alcoholic Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby) whose chance at a comeback is created by temperamental director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) against his backers’ better judgement. Dodd believes Kelly’s a suicidal drinker but she’s actually fronting for the massive insecurity of her husband, an habitual and chronic liar who’s using their son’s death in his care as an excuse for his cowardliness and retreat to the bottle. Kelly has to keep him going while the out of town previews go badly and go along with his stories to Dodd, who thinks she’s destroying him until he finally sees Frank on a bender and Frank confesses. Then Dodd realises his antipathy is based on his pure misogyny – he’s down on marriage since he cheated on his ex-wife obviously – and thinks he’s in love with her. Kelly thinks she is sympathetic to him too but she wants her husband’s comeback to work too. This Clifford Odets story is adapted very well by producer/director/writer George Seaton with key observational touches – there’s a lovely bit where Kelly overhears the audience’s opinions in the interval and smiles to herself – in between the big scenes, which are adorned with some crackling expository and personal dialogue. One of Crosby’s final lines is to die for. However he overplays his moroseness and Holden is occasionally too strident although that’s probably the Odets character – making Kelly’s job of pivoting between the pair that much harder. Some of her best moments are beautifully adorned by Victor Young’s supremely subtle score. A cracking backstage drama that deals with addiction, bereavement, guilt, grief and a dying marriage:  you know, the little things. Now, let’s put on a show!

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)

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James Michener’s Korean War novel gets a vivid interpretation by screenwriter Valentine Davies and director Mark Robson, with some impressive aerial photography and effects.  William Holden is the lawyer recalled to the Navy to fly bombs to support ground troops and his fear-filled ambivalence reminds commander Frederic March of one of his own sons killed in World War 2. Grace Kelly is only in the second quarter of the film, to see her husband on leave in Japan and there are nice scenes with their kids and her own scene with March who explains the dangers her husband faces to prepare her for potentially tough times ahead.  Mickey Rooney is the chopper pilot who’s pulled Holden from the sea so Holden returns the favour on shore leave when Rooney brawls with a love rival. He and Earl Holliman are a tight partnership who dig the pilots out of holes. But over it all hangs the mission:  a dangerous attack on strategic bridges and, well, it’s war. That never ends well.

Grace of Monaco (2014)

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Another jaunt to the Riviera, or, more precisely, the principality of Monaco. As a fan of the great Grace Kelly this was one of the three films I anticipated most in 2014 and it couldn’t but disappoint. Written by Arash Amel and directed by Olivier Dahan (who had made the incredible La Vie en Rose) and starring Nicole Kidman, it seemed like a dream team. The shooting style is a homage to To Catch a Thief, the locations are obviously beautiful … but the exploration of the Princess’ inner life at a time of political turmoil doesn’t grasp the nettle of her reality, daunted as she must have been by the pressures of royal duty, family and marriage with the prospect of a film comeback with her favourite director, Alfred Hitchcock. The palace high jinks are fascinating, if true.  Therefore it was not a subject wanting for drama yet the combination doesn’t quite gel. Kidman doesn’t remotely resemble Kelly which poses a mighty obstacle. And yet the film is a valiant effort, despite being criticised by the Grimaldis. It must have been a tough watch at the Cannes Festival. And never got a cinema release in the US – where it became a TVM, acknowledged at the Golden Globes earlier this year.

To Catch a Thief (1954)

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The police are chasing the wrong man. Always regarded as a lesser Hitchcock, this really came alive when I saw a decent DVD transfer, with sparkling seas and diamonds, brilliant aerial photography of the South of France and of course the beautiful Kelly and Grant, both simply stunning to watch. The witty screenplay by John Michael Hayes, adapting from local adoptee David Dodge’s novel, glides over some unnecessary plot elements, highlights both stars’ finer points and blesses everyone concerned with some delightful double entendres as retired cat burglar John Robie (Cary Grant) chases his imitator who is getting him into hot water while the richest women on the Riviera are denuded of their jewels and one of them Francie Stevens (Grace Kelly) has designs on John Robie… You know as well as I do those jewels are fake. Watching this one is reminded of true glamour and how fleeting it is in reality. Sensational. You can read about the three legendary collaborations between Hitchcock and Kelly in my essay Alfred Hitchcock & Grace Kelly on Offscreen:

High Society (1956)

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Not that I was looking for an excuse, I watched this again today in honour of the late Terry Wogan, whose favourite film it was. Wogan was a legendary broadcaster of wonderfully subtle and subversive acerbic wit and erudition who made radio and TV look like a walk in the park (they’re not – I know.) This is simply sublime entertainment, never mind the naysayers who prefer The Philadelphia Story. This is shot in VistaVision and glorious Technicolour, it has music by Cole Porter and Louis Armstrong, and Grace Kelly (sporting her real-life engagement ring!), Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra at the peak of their powers. Crosby duets with Sinatra on Well, Did You Evah (from the earlier show DuBarry was a Lady), and with Kelly on True Love – which gave her a million-selling single years before her friend Sinatra ever did. It was Kelly’s last big hit before her tragically early retirement. Vaya con Dios, Terry. And may this be your soundtrack.

Mogambo (1953)

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This remake of Red Dust was set in Africa and the real story was the on-set relationship between Grace Kelly (as the uptight wife of scientist Donald Sinden) and Clark Gable, the safari guide who play-acts with glamour girl Ava Gardner (who was having her own off-set issues with husband Frank Sinatra). One of those legendary 50s movies that make for perfect holiday viewing:  beautifully shot, great locations and smouldering passions. Perfect.  Written by John Lee Mahin and directed by John Ford.

Dial M for Murder (1954)

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With the release of Gone Girl (Fincher, 2014) one is tempted to remember another marriage plot, with the resplendent Grace Kelly, the suave Ray Milland and the third part of that particular marriage’s triangle, the bland murder mystery writer, Mark (Robert Cummings).  Shot in chronological order, and with just a courtroom scene to differentiate this 3D film from the stage play by Frederick Knott, it is a masterpiece of tension and melodramatic dread, shaded in Kelly’s increasingly complex performance. Ingeniously staging the work from different angles, including overhead, no studio flat ever seemed so small and yet so replete with danger. Kelly’s hair is styled differently to further our understanding of her predicament, her clothes steadily darker and her mood more penumbral. Marriage is murder. For more on the films made by Hitchcock with Kelly, see my article on Offscreen:

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