The Blog Formerly Known as Rebel Prince

Cult TV, Gen Y rants, and endless opera.

Hitchcock Reviews: 1922 – 1930

Posted by therebelprince on February 1, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock in the 1920s

The name “Hitchcock” is probably known to every Western filmgoer over the age of seven, whether they can rattle off a list of his cinematographers, or their knowledge extends only as far as the shower scene from Psycho.

Although I’d seen most of Hitch’s films at least once in my life, they were mostly viewed during highschool, and I began to worry that my photographic memory of The Birds probably wasn’t enough. So, it seemed high time to go back to the start, filling in the gaps in my knowledge, and watching the bulk of Hitchcock’s oeuvre with fresh eyes.

Over the next couple of months, then, I’ll be rewatching all of Hitchcock’s films, and we’ll begin below…

“You may question my taste, but as an artist you’ll understand my temptation.”

– Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), Murder!

The Ground Rules

I’m gonna play pretty fast-and-loose with these reviews; some will be a couple of paragraphs, others might take up entire posts. Hopefully, I’ll tackle a range of subjects: Hitch’s personal and professional relationships, his evolving visual style, his relationship to contemporary styles and films, and just generally asking why the man’s films are so damn entertaining.

While I’ll be covering the entirety of Hitch’s sound era, I’ll only be taking a brief look at his silent films and television episodes. This is partly because not all of them are available, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because – while they’re no less important as stages of the director’s style – they’re less often studied as part of his contribution to the medium. Beyond this, I won’t be assigning any kind of rating to the films. I’ll certainly be giving my personal opinion – be it masterpiece or flop – but rating the films out of five stars seems like a simplistic move, given the variety of pieces at hand (how do you compare the black comedy of The Trouble with Harry with the psychological intensity of Marnie?), the five-decade time span (The Lady Vanishes and Psycho are both great, but one is inevitably more dated than the other), the variables outside of Hitch’s control, and occasionally the gulf between the director’s limitless ambition and the realities of the filmmaking process.

I hope, however, that I can explain why so many people are still misty-eyed over a chubby Brit born in the 19th century, and why his films have influenced so many.

The Silents

Ivor Novello in “The Lodger”

Between 1920 and 1925, Alfred Hitchcock made a living working as a scenarist, title designer, art director, production manager, and ultimately assistant director of various silent films in England. After his first directing gig, a slice-of-life drama called Number 13 was cancelled in 1922, he co-directed a short comedy film called Always Tell Your Wife in 1923. Being involved in all aspects of film production, particularly focusing on the look of a film, was a major source of Hitchcock’s artistic and narrative development, that would see him race out of the gate, with his first film: The Pleasure Garden (1926). At a breezy 61 minutes, The Pleasure Garden is a rather intensely dramatic film about the misfortunes of three chorus girls. His second, The Mountain Eagle (1927), is now lost. After filming The Pleasure Garden on location in Europe, Hitch’s second was set in Kentucky. Although he was hardly commanding enough yet to choose his projects, this international flavour must’ve helped Hitchcock shape his ambitions.

It was with his third film, 1927’s The Lodger, that Alfred Hitchcock made his name. Generally regarded as one of the highlights of his short silent era, The Lodger details the hunt for a serial killer, and the tale of a wrong man accused of a crime. If that synopsis didn’t tip you off, the film prefigures Hitch’s greatest genre works in oh, so many ways. The brooding cinematography, the wrong man at the centre of the narrative, the surprising grittiness to the crimes committed: these elements will ricochet from The Man Who Knew Too Much to North by Northwest to Frenzy. But its in the taut sense of terror that Hitchcock excels. The family who take in an odd lodger (Ivor Novello) are increasingly suspicious, and Hitch’s direction already knows just how to ratchet up the tension and, better, just when to give us a release.  While the antiquated acting styles of some of these silents can be off-putting, suspense doesn’t lose its captivating nature. It is also one of the more easily accessible silent films, with some dynamite extras to be found on various prints. Finally, The Lodger features Hitch’s first cameo appearance. In his early movies, Hitch would join crowd scenes or just feature as an extra, long before any kind of deliberate attempt to appear in his films.

It was around this time that Hitch married Alma Reville, who would be his wife for 55 years, as well as one of his most important collaborators.

The following couple of years saw a string of films which I’ve not yet seen, but which are best available in a DVD set called The Early Hitchcock. The Ring (1927) is about a love triangle set in the world of boxing; The Farmer’s Wife (1928) tells of a recently widowed farmer who must choose between four possible new wives; Easy Virtue (1928) tackles the theme of a wronged woman (Isabel Jeans) who hides her past from her new husband. And Champagne (1928) stars Betty Balfour as an heiress who seeks out a new life after her father loses all his money. In a frightening sign of things to come, Hitchcock was chastened even then for switching from his more established genres of drama and suspense to a light, frothy comedy. Hitch himself disliked Champagne, but the rest of his later silents were highly regarded by critics, and relatively popular with audiences.

Ivor Novello in “Downhill”

Aside from The Lodger, I have particular esteem for Downhill (1927), in which a wealthy young rugby player’s life falls apart as he is falsely accused of impregnating a woman. The rather handsome Ivor Novello is at the core of this story which, while dated is beautifully done. Hitchcock was born at just the right time, and really in the right place, to take advantage of the medium as a young man. Already, there’s a clear sense of a director who knows his way around a camera, already seeking to stretch himself to the limit. Hitch has an eye for the camera, but also particularly for the medium of film. Like other major directors of the dying days of the silent film, Hitch was interested in the art of ‘pure film’. Trying to use less title cards than ever before, the aim was to create a story using the then-advanced technology, without the need for either written or verbal dialogue.

The Manxman (1929) was Hitch’s final complete silent. A fisherman, presumed dead, returns to his hometown to find that his best friend has fallen in love with his sweetheart. The Manxman is a surprisingly heartbreaking film, with a plot that – despite its cliched premise – attempts to make everything come from character. As the central trio, Carl Brisson, Malcolm Keen, and particularly Anny Ondra are very convincing. It’s clear that, for all of his talents with suspense and cinematography, Hitch was heavily interested in the psychology of his characters.

Most people will never see any of Hitch’s silent works, except perhaps for clips in documentaries. I don’t think this needs to be remedied; after all, by their very nature as artefacts from another era, with dated acting styles and often poor quality prints, it can be rare to feel great excitement watching them. (Sheer classics, such as Metropolis or the works of D.W. Griffiths aside.) But these are intriguing insights into a bygone era, and there’s already a very knowing feel to Hitchcock’s composition of shots: an awareness of exactly what will make the audience tick.  It was no surprise that the era of talking pictures would embrace this cocky young director in all his glory.

(Incidentally, now’s as good a time as any for a shout out to the 1000 Frames of Hitchcock project over at Hitchcock Wiki. With 1000 frames from each film, it’s probably the ultimate Hitchcock pictorial resource on the web.)

The Talkies

Blackmail (1929)
written by Alfred Hitchcock, Garnett Weston, Charles Bennett from a story by Bennett

Alice White (Anny Ondra) stabs a would-be rapist (Cyril Ritchard), and flees the scene. After her detective boyfriend (John Longden) is assigned to the case, the pair are blackmailed by a blackguard (Donald Calthrop), and must find a way to turn the tables.

Anny Ondra in “Blackmail”

A fascinating embryonic Hitchcock, Blackmail was The Master’s first talkie. However, a silent version was also made, which truthfully removes the slight awkwardness caused by the patchy dubbing of Ondra’s lines. (And by dubbing, I mean speaking, as an actress had to stand off-camera and recite lines during takes, before the appropriate technology was available!) Blackmail is quite creaky at times, but it’s primarily the fault of the eighty years that separate its production from today. Ondra’s performance is the first of many to be nurtured by the director (the beautiful blonde could be seen as the matriarch of Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, et al), and his stylistic direction of the death of the rapist is the most captivating scene since those of The Lodger.

I’m sure there are Hitchcock buffs out there would look down their nose at any fan who hasn’t seen these films. I’d dispute that, as his first few films – while all of historical value – are product of their time. But, if you’re going to see one pre-Man Who Knew Too Much Hitchcock, I’d recommend Blackmail. The film’s climactic sequence shows its age, but the central idea – a chase ending in a shocking death on the roof of the British Museum – prefigures the ambition that would be a Hitchcock trademark for 50 years.

Hitch Cameo: One of my personal favourites, as Hitch gazes witheringly at a small boy watching him read a book on the Underground.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)written by Alfred Hitchcock with Alma Reville, from a play by Sean O’Casey

The Boyle family are down-on-their-luck Dubliners. Mary Boyle (Kathleen O’Regan) is courted by Charlie (John Longden), who fakes an inheritance to impress the family. But the lie soon spreads, and Mary’s father (Edward Chapman) starts spending wastefully, as the devastation of the Irish Civil War looms…

Juno and the Paycock is one of the hardest Hitchcock films to acquire, which has created the impression that it’s one of his lesser efforts. Sadly, I’d have to agree. While The Lodger and Blackmail were innately filmic, Hitch treats this more as a stageplay. The static camera work threatens a story that is already somewhat melodramatic, and hasn’t aged well after 80 years. There are many great films from this era which echo down the ages with surprisingly modern performances. Juno and the Paycock is not one. Memorable moments instead lie primarily in the depictions of the War, with John Laurie as a bitter, crippled veteran, and wonderfully gritty looks at tenement life. (Hitch’s early British films exude an earthiness which would be left behind on heading to Hollywood, resurfacing again only on rare occasions such as Lifeboat and Frenzy.) Sara Allgood stands out with a dated but powerful performance as Juno, the family’s matriarch, but – with the nascent sound technology – dialogue can sometimes be lost or scattered.

The family in “Juno and the Paycock”

The film ends – SPOILER! – on a rather tragic note, with the increased misfortune, poverty, and death refusing to go away. Instead, the family are left to struggle on through an unfair world. This came as something of a relief, since a sudden windfall of money would’ve betrayed the truthful performances (and, assumedly, the connection that many original audience members would’ve felt to the situation). However, I’d regard Juno and the Paycock as a curio. It was the first time that Hitchcock was working faithfully from a source text (Sean O’Casey’s play) and, as would happen on many occasions when he didn’t have much sway over the script, Hitch seems to have lacked passion for the project.

Still, it seems rather gauche to deride an eighty-year-old film that, for all its quaintness, has good intentions. There isn’t one Hitchcock film where he shows a lack of mastery with the camera (even if, as we’ll see, many factors led to some forgettable moments along the way).

Hitch Cameo: Sorry to say, there isn’t one.

Well, folks, that’s my first trip into the world of Hitchcock. I’d seen many of these throughout highschool and university, but a few were new. Next time, we’ll look at Hitchcock’s maturation in the world of English ‘talkies’ , from Murder! to The Man Who Knew Too Much, and beyond…


5 Responses to “Hitchcock Reviews: 1922 – 1930”

  1. […] Hitchcock Reviews: 1922 – 1930 […]

  2. […] and then surpass, what came before it. Notorious came twenty years after Hitch’s first flick -The Pleasure Garden – and I’m going to call it his best film of those two decades. A […]

  3. […] and the angriest Hitchcock had ever been about an issue. (Aside from the ‘troubles’ in Juno and the Paycock and – if you want to go there – the fascination with psychology in Spellbound, this is […]

  4. […] a helicopter. When Hitchcock was born in 1899, film was still a medium for capturing brief moments. When he came of age on the British film studios of the 1920s, he was there to witness every moment of the transition […]

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