It’s a safe bet that if Waltzes from Vienna had been directed by anyone other than Alfred Hitchcock, it would have sunk into well deserved obscurity. Still, as much as I dislike the adulation that accompanies any film by Hitchcock, I have to admit that without his guidance Waltzes would be even more insufferable than it is. Watching it did help me to understand something about my own film preferences, however. For the laborious efforts here to keep the plot contrivances and frothy atmosphere afloat had the beneficial effect of reminding me just how much I dislike suspense.
To be clear, despite Hitchcock’s participation, Waltzes is not a thriller. It is, rather, a synthetic quasi-musical about Johann Strauss Jr. and his efforts to overcome his father’s hostility to his pursuing a musical career. The “suspense” centers on whether Jr. will write “The Blue Danube,” so that everyone can be wowed by his gifts and Sr. can come to terms with his son’s independence. The “suspense” therefore derives not from the imperiled situations familiar from Hitchcock thrillers, but from the effort to create conflict and its “What happens next?” resolution. Such emotional manipulation is supposed to be central to the film experience, but to me, it often comes off as the equivalent of a poor magician distracting the spectator from low tricks. When, as in Waltzes, the ending is more or less a foregone conclusion to a not terribly compelling situation, the antics are just tiresome.
Perhaps Hitchcock over-emphasized the aspects of the script closest to his interests. If so, his efforts are self-defeating, for the best moments are the largely gratuitous technical frills around the edges. There’s a clever sequence exploiting match cuts, for example, as the two women in Jr’s. life simultaneously (and unknown to each other) do their best to get “The Blue Danube” performed and Hitchcock cuts back and forth between their actions. It’s the kind of casual flourish that could only come from a filmmaker of Hitchcock’s calibre. On the other hand, the film’s Big Moment, the premiere of “The Blue Danube,” is rather disorganized and confusing and falls pretty flat.
That confusion is not surprising. As the sequence in which all the plot threads are supposed to come together, it becomes glaringly apparent how fabricated the situation is, and how little sense any of it makes. Worse still, because not all the threads are really tied up, the premiere isn’t even the end of the film. Instead, there’s a frenetic coda that feels like a failed attempt to turn Waltzes into a bedroom farce. There is some perverse justification in that effort, since it never is clear whether Waltzes is mean to be a biopic, a romance, a musical or a serious drama. Why not turn it into a farce too? With a story this pasted together, Waltzes could be just about anything; as a result, it is just about nothing.