Hitchcock Reviews: 1930 – 1934
Posted by therebelprince on February 11, 2012
Haunted heroes, complex villains, nail-biting suspense, tangled-but-exhilarating plots, and the subtext of a very dirty mind: these are just some of the reasons Alfred Hitchcock remains such a fascinating figure for film buffs the world over.
After last week’s look at the silents and embyronic “talkies” of Hitchcock, this time we’re looking at his break-out English period, where – in a string of largely forgotten movies – the ambitious, young director began to iron out his style, even if he was still working largely with other people’s scripts, and other people’s visions.
“It’s like the pictures, isn’t it?”
“Too much for my liking.”
— Rose Ackroyd and Detective Barton in Number Seventeen
written by Alfred Hitchcock and Walter C. Mycroft, from a play by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson
When she is found standing over a dead body, actress Diana Baring (Norah Baring) is arrested for muder. While the jury convicts her to death, one juror – Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) – is unconvinced. Sir John, accompanied by friends Doucie (Phyllis Konstam) and Ted Markham (Edward Chapman), must infilitrate the theatre troupe and uncover the identity of the real murderer, before Diana hangs.
It’s tough to review films from this era. Even if you grew up with a healthy diet of media from all eras, inevitably acting styles, methods of narrative and surprise, and a variety of other aspects, do change over time, and have an affect on how a Gen Y person takes in a 1930s movie. I think Murder! is the most accomplished of Hitchcock’s early talkies, but it’s damn slow. Depending on when you figure out the murderer, and how comfortable you are with rather lengthy, talky scenes, will have an effect on how you enjoy this film.
One of Hitchcock’s greatest strengths over the years was assembling a sterling supporting cast, and the secondary players have great fun here as strange or arrogant actors, and vehement jurors. As Sir John, Marshall is charismatic but his performance can sometimes be stilted, perhaps just a result of the creaky transition between silent and sound films. Norah Baring is sympathetic as Diana, although I don’t think she’s one of the most charismatic of Hitchcock’s leading ladies. The climax at a circus is quite breathtaking. In fact, much of the film looks lovely, and there are some moments of lovely cinematography.
There’s a sense here, too, that storytelling isn’t just about ratcheting up the suspense with each scene. There are diversions here that are purely about character, or comedy, or ambience. Hitch at his best was rarely superfluous, but he was always aware that a film wasn’t just about getting from A to B to C. Being born in 1899, Hitchcock couldn’t have been better timed to grasp the full extent of the possibilities of film. With each passing year of the ’10s, ’20s, and ’30s, new technology, performance styles, and images began to permeate Western culture through filmgoers. Adding to this, the late ’20s saw the British government enforce laws that would help increase film production. It’s no surprise Hitchcock is still synonymous with film. As Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard, “we were young together”.
At the same time, Murder! is a film only for die-hard Hitch fans. As with all of his early talkies, the sound quality isn’t always great, and many scenes are still creaky. The famous ‘interior monologue’ sequence, in which Sir John ponders the case while shaving (filmed, amazingly, with an entire orchestra behind the wall to provide the music), is actually quite obvious and prolonged. The denouement, aside from being slightly offensive, is rather sudden, not allowing for an appropriate come-down from the events of the climax.
Although his next four films would be relatively routine exercises, these were the training grounds for the director who would explode on to the scene with The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Hitch Cameo: Hitch wanders past the house late in the film. At this point, he was really just helping fill in as an extra.
The Skin Game (1931)
written by Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville from John Galsworthy‘s play
Nouveau riche Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Glenn) is a glorified slum lord, buying up land and turning it into an industrial hellhole. Disgusted and bitter, the well-off Hillcrists (C.V. France and Helen Haye) find out a scandalous secret about Hornblower’s daughter Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), and set about blackmailing their rival to sell his land back.
It’s interesting how many of Hitchcock’s early films were adapted from plays or novels, and The Skin Game is certainly a riveting story. Like Juno and the Paycock before it, however, this is a very talky film, buoyed only by a beautifully tense action sequence, and the affecting ending. Thankfully, it’s a mere 77 minutes, which at least keeps things moving at a steady clip. I think The Skin Game is certainly better than the three oddities that follow it, but – like them – it’s let down somewhat by both the talkiness, and the relatively dated performances. (That’s no-one’s fault – and most all of Hitch’s British films were a success in their native country – but it does affect us nowadays, let’s be honest.) It’s a damn soapy film, with conspiring families and upstart young things, yet the cast make it work. Glenn is particularly strong, but there aren’t any weaknesses.
There are few directorial flourishes here, and Hitch again seems devoid of passion due to the existing story. With a few notable exceptions, it seems that Hitch’s delight for a film was in direct proportion to his creative control, and it shows. Chloe’s big secret – she would secretly help people win divorce cases by pretending to be the “other woman” – is obviously less than scandalous these days, but here it leads to a stunningly tragic outcome. From the moment he moved to Hollywood, Hitch was forced to provide happy endings for his protagonists. (It isn’t until Vertigo that we get a true Hollywood tragedy, even if a few films come close.) The Skin Game is genuinely surprising when things end so badly, and that’s certainly a fact in its favour. However, I’d advise any newcomers to Hitchcock to skip straight to The Man Who Knew Too Much, and avoid these creaky films.
Hitch Cameo: None.
Rich and Strange (1931)
written by Alfred Hitchcock, Val Valentine and Alma Reville, from a novel by Dale Collins
Small-time clerk Frank Hill (Henry Kendall) and his wife Emily (Joan Barry) give up their ordinary lives when they come into money. But, as the pair discover how little they know of the world beyond England, they are also both tempted into extra-marital affairs, and things only go downhill from there…
I’ve always had a soft spot for Rich and Strange, which was one of the first Hitchcock films I ever saw. As the silent film era reached its zenith in the ’20s, one school of directors began to argue that “pure cinema” could be achieved with few or no intertitles: that everything could be told with images. Hitch certainly seemed to subscribe to this philosophy in the ’20s and early ’30s. Rich and Strange is not a silent film, but it is largely devoid of dialogue, and many of the trappings of the silent era – heavy make-up, Chaplinesque cinematography – are in play. Along with the odd, picaresque nature of the plot, this combines to give the film the feel of a fable. Strangely, this lifts some of the film’s sequences above the very talky (and thus, very theatrical) feeling of some of Hitch’s contemporary works.
Rich and Strange – excepting the forgettable Waltzes from Vienna – is Hitch’s lightest film until Mr & Mrs Smith, but it has a worthy chunk of adventure in the final reels, as the reunited Fred and Emily find their lives accidentally in danger. Comedy is never far from the scene, though. Perhaps the reason I enjoyed this film when I first saw it as a film-giddy 12-year-old was because it has a certain absurdism about it. It’s a strange, rollicking tale, but there’s something very enjoyable in the performances, as long as you look at this film as a curio from another era. Whatever Rich and Strange may be, it’s never boring. The film was a flop, and is certainly one of his least-known talkies, but – while the story lacks much suspense – you can certainly see the director’s style appearing now, as the shots often feel immaculately planned. Note the opening sequence, with its choreographed opening of umbrellas, or the disconcerting way the Chinese sailors stare down our heroes at the end. It’s one for die-hards only but, freed for once from the trappings of theatricality, Rich and Strange allowed Hitchcock to stretch his wings in the world of cinema.
Hitch Cameo: Again, none.
written by Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, and Rodney Ackland, from a play by J. Jefferson Farjeon
An eager detective (John Stuart) hunts a cul-de-sac for stolen jewels, aware that they are somewhere on the premises, and one of the motley crew of suspects in attendance must be the thief.
Hitchcock sure loved a good staircase. From The Lodger and Blackmail to The Birds and Frenzy, the director could always make a stairwell dark and atmospheric. And, for the first five minutes of Number Seventeen, he does. And then…
Hitchcock didn’t want Number Seventeen when he was assigned it by Mycroft Films, and he didn’t appreciate it in retrospect. The director was about to become a much-wanted commodity, but for now he was still stuck within the system of a film studio, and this odd comedy-cum-thriller has some captivating moments, amidst a muddled plot and some confused performances. The film is clearly intended to be an adventure romp, but the plot is perplexing, and almost none of the actors seem to have been let in on the joke. As a result, the tongue-in-cheek moments only detract from the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. While it’s thankfully not as static as some of Hitch’s earlier films (indeed, he’d never really do anything static again), Number Seventeen heavily resembles a play for the first and second acts.
Things pick up somewhat in the final reels, with a very silly train and bus race climaxing in the ocean. At least it’s something! Number Seventeen never comes together, and there isn’t anything in it that I’d recommend. If nothing else, it was proof that Hitch would do his best to find something redeeming in a turkey of a script. But the decision to turn this thriller into a comedy could’ve been better planned, better cast, and just generally better.
Hitch Cameo: Yet again, none.
Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
written by Claude Allen
Johann Strauss (Esmond Knight) writes “The Blue Danube”, and sees it through to performance.
Waltzes from Vienna is Hitchcock’s least-known film, and certainly his least favourite. It’s hard for me to really discuss it, as the print I saw was quite faded, but – while this is definitely a by-the-numbers script, and a decidedly un-Hitchcock plot – Waltzes from Vienna is possibly the most important formative Hitch film since Blackmail. While it isn’t a musical in the typical sense, the whole film rests on the creation of a piece of music, and more than ever before, Hitchcock planned out many shots in sumptuous detail. It doesn’t really work: like any ‘artist creating’ film, some of the scenes where Strauss figures out his melody are a bit twee (“those bakers are kneading in a perfect rhythm!”, to paraphrase), and the lack of criminal or adventure elements (never again to be entirely absent) don’t play to Hitch’s strengths.
At the same time, I don’t think it’s his worst. While forgettable, yes, Waltzes from Vienna has a thematic and structural unity not seen in Hitch’s work since Blackmail, and a strong performance from Edmund Glenn as the elder Strauss, who manages to make his typical “this Blue Danube thing sucks” character not seem stupid. After a decade in the industry, Hitchcock’s talent could no longer be hidden, and there’s a competency in direction that prefigures the great films in store.
Hitch Cameo: None. He’ll start doing it soon, don’t worry!
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
written by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a story by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlinson
In St. Moritz, British tourists Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), hear the dying words of a spy. When their young daughter is kidnapped to ensure their silence, Bob and Jill must find a way – without police back-up – to prevent the assassination of a European ambassador during a performance at the Royal Albert Hall.
Film fans will debate until the end of the world whether this film or its 1956 remake is the better. (The talented folk over at Screen Savour make another argument entirely: the films are so vastly different in tone, style, and era, that the argument is irrelevant.) The answer for me, however, is this one. I’ll leave comments on the ’56 version aside for now, but The Man Who Knew Too Much is the first of Hitchcock’s many remarkable movies. Banks and Best are underwhelming, but they look heartfelt and convincing as the terrified couple who find themselves as reluctant spies. It seems like an odd choice to cast Peter Lorre as the villain, given he barely knew English at the time and was learning it phonetically. But he does very well in spite of this (he’s Peter Freaking Lorre, after all), and already commands the screen. And, as the daughter, young star Nova Pilbeam is a natural with the camera.
It had been a creaky rollercoaster ride from the early atmosphere of The Lodger to here, via a string of films whose conception, script, cast, studio interference, or lack of interest tended to take away from their strengths. The Man Who Knew Too Much solidifies all of Hitchcock’s previous work, with clearly-planned camera angles throughout, a uniform style, and some wonderful suspense. Some of the set pieces are just cracking, particularly the Albert Hall climax. As the characters wait anxiously throughout the auditorium, the assassin prepares his weapon, waiting for the exact moment in the score – a cymbal crash – that will obscure the sound of the shot. No one else knows when he will fire, only that he will fire, and it is surely one of the most tense sequences in film to that date. (The fact that Arthur Benjamin‘s musical piece, Storm Clouds, was specifically written for the scene adds even further weight.)
Hitch’s picaresque tales are not my favourite of his canon (North by Northwest is startlingly far down my list, now I think about it!), because they lack the tight dramatic unity of Rebecca or The Birds. And, most perilously, The Man Who Knew Too Much starts what will be a lengthy trend for The Master: plots which often make little to no sense. The film is pure pulp, right up to Jill’s sharpshooting skills playing a major part in the finale. However, like all the best of these picaresques, the film is punctuated by Hitchcock’s humour, and a sense of urgency that captures the viewer for the entire second half.
With a brisk running time and a double climax, The Man Who Knew Too Much is the first true Hitchcock talkie, and would provide an important lesson for his next film: The 39 Steps.
Hitch Cameo: Hitch apparently crosses a road during the film, but it’s kinda tough to tell.
Next time: Hitchcock goes spy-crazy, with his greatest films of the British era.