Hitchcock Reviews: 1935 – 1939
Posted by therebelprince on February 22, 2012
Alfred Hitchcock had always made the most of his situation. During his early years as a title designer and art director, he’d taken on any other task available to develop his filmmaking skills. After his brief silent era, and some patchy-but-competently-directed early films, Hitch came into his own with 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Following on from this, he would make six more films – of varying quality – before departing from England’s fair shores to the Land of Dreams. Today, I’ll take a look at those six films, and just what they contributed to Hitch’s legacy.
“What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it, and tell your children how the great age ended. “
– – Sir Humphrey, Jamaica Inn
The 39 Steps (1935)
written by Charles Bennett, loosely based on John Buchan‘s novel.
Everyman Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is thrust into a plot to steal military secrets, when a new acquaintance (Lucie Mannheim) reveals herself to be a spy, and is shortly assassinated. Pursued through Scotland to London, Hannay must uncover the truth to protect his name, and his life.
The 39 Steps is pure melodrama. Prefiguring the immaculate but ridiculous North by Northwest, Richard Hannay’s journey is full of odd twists and turns, and startling scenes that would probably fall apart if you applied logic to them. It’s also one of those movies where something in character’s pocket – this time, a hymn book – literally stops a bullet.
There’s a few elements that make this completely acceptable. First, so many of the cliches in The 39 Steps are partly cliches because of it. Although Hitchcock and screenwriter Bennett draw on any number of existing adventure movie tropes, but compile them in so many inventive ways, that there’s no doubt this film inspired generations of adventure movies to come. You’d also have to be an incredible cynic to not be on board with this film. Donat and Madeleine Carroll – as the young woman who becomes his only ally after she is literally shackled to him – are very appealing performers, and Hitch is in full control of his camera. The adventure never lets up, and – if there was any doubt – it should be clear by now that Hitchcock is a major emerging talent. His love of the medium, and an eternal desire to stretch the boundaries of both what was acceptable and what could be done, began in earnest here, as did his desire to make great films that could also be truly entertaining.
If I had to be perfectly honest, I’d argue this is a remarkable work rather than the masterpiece that some film critics are inclined to call it. I feel that the pulpy plot precludes it from being a masterwork (at least in contrast to some of Hitch’s ’50s and ’60s greats), and you could argue that the commercial and artistic success of the film perhaps verified Hitchcock’s preferred plotting technique – which would annoy more than one Hollywood screenwriter! – of caring more for the image and suspense than logic.
Yet, these are minor qualms in an early film classic. The 39 Steps is full of intriguing little cameos from fully-realised characters, as in the justly well-known – if dated – appearance of John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft as a crofter and his wife whom Hannay encounters. For most directors, one classic is all you can expect. Alfred Hitchcock was just beginning.
Hitch Cameo: Hitch can be seen tossing garbage in a trashcan shortly after Hannay leaves the theatre, six minutes in.
Secret Agent (1936)
written by Charles Bennett, Alma Reville and Ian Hay from a story by W. Somerset Maugham
Elgar Brodie (John Gielgud) is a British novelist in WWI, conscripted by the government to go undercover and kill a German agent. Posing as “Richard Ashenden”, Brodie and his pretend wife Elsa (Madeleine Carroll) pursue a killer through Switzerland, risking their lives to do so.
If you’ve been paying attention to the writers listed thus far, you’ll notice that Hitch had no shortage of talent working with him: John Galsworthy and W. Somerset Maugham among them. Generally speaking, though, the more famous the author, the more Hitchcock had to change the script before he was happy with it. He was a true auteur, even if his interest lay more in the themes and structure rather than dialogue itself. His two most prodigous British collaborators were Charles Bennett – who worked on this string of films – and Hitch’s wife Alma, who was a vital part of the creative process for most of his films, although she gradually reduced her input after about 1950.
Secret Agent is a rollicking little B-movie, very typical of Hitch’s British thrillers. Carroll was a great star, and her collaborations with the director are among my favourite of his female performers. The usually reliable John Gielgud was new to film, and found the process quite disorienting. He’s too much of a gentleman to let it show, of course, but Gielgud’s performance doesn’t really leap off the ground.
Thankfully, Peter Lorre is again along for the ride as a professional killer who provides aid to Richard and Elsa on their journey. Occasional gleefully black images – a man falling dead on to a church organ, for instance – abound, and the most notable sequence is one in which a message in a chocolate box takes an arduous journey through a factory, as Lorre pursues it. This is really just a romp, with less character detail than the previous two classics. The lovely folk at Moviegoings posit that Hitch – with his chosen genre of conspiracy, espionage, and doubt – may not have taken off had he not had the good fortune to emerge along with WWII. It’s hard to disagree, and in some parallel universe, he’s a Vincent Van Gogh type: doomed to be vastly talented but never appreciated by the masses. Secret Agent doesn’t waste one of its 86 minutes, providing satisfactory – if never groundbreaking – entertainment for the upstart director.
Hitch Cameo: None, as far as I can tell
written by Charles Bennett, from a story by Joseph Conrad
After a series of devestating terrorist attacks, Mrs Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) becomes suspicious of her immigrant husband (Oskar Homolka).
Sabotage is a fascinating Hitchcock film, the first to really combine charactr study and suspense drama. Verloc, his wife, and Detective Spencer (John Loder) are a triumvirate of genuine characters, with the thematic depth of a play, but existing amongst some taut adventure. Verloc comes out best, as a conflicted possible villain, and the growing discomfort of his wife is well played by Sidney. The detective is perhaps the central member of the trio, but Loder is rather generic in the role. In his defence, the script wants to shoehorn a love triangle into what is already a suspenseful story, and Spencer becomes a confusing entity because of it.
Sabotage is let down by the fact that it sometimes feels like an “old film”, in the way that The 39 Steps never did. (The Lady Vanishes feels “old” too, but it’s so gleeful, that it doesn’t matter!) Beyond this, it’s full of proto-Hitchcockian set pieces: an ominous conversation in an aquarium, a woman’s nervous breakdown to the strains of a Walt Disney film, a bomb-on-a-bus which must rival any other suspense sequence in Hitch’s canon. There’s also a particularly striking dinner sequence, but it would ruin things to give it away.
Not everything sparkles in Sabotage, but there’s a powerful tension at its core, as three ambiguous characters slowly circle one another, and their lives are torn apart. It’s a patchy but worthy notch in Hitchcock’s already impressive belt.
Hitch Cameo: The great director finally starts the pattern of cameos for good, as he wanders along the sidewalk early in the film.
Young and Innocent (1937)
written by Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood and Anthony Armstrong, from a novel by Josephine Tey
When he comes across a body on the beach, Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) is arrested for murder, and flees the courtroom. Forcing a police chief’s daughter (Nova Pilbeam) to aid him, Tisdall sets about proving his innocence, while on the run from the law.
I had not seen Young and Innocent until I began this review project, and it’s certainly a film in which Hitchcock’s style is becoming evident. One of Charles Bennett’s final scripts for the director, Young and Innocent very much evokes Hitch’s previous few films, as an everyman must prove his innocence, culminating in a crowded set-piece scene.
What sets Young and Innocent above some of the others is the sense that things just keep on moving. Beginning with Tisdall’s escape from the law, the film takes place across the course of one giddy day, as he and Erica journey from a child’s birthday party to a homeless shelter to the ballroom of the Grand Hotel. It’s exceptionally paced, with a delightful cast (Pilbeam had been a child star, notably earning a credit on the poster as the kidnapped daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much), and the climax is rightly hailed as an early work of genius, as the camera moves steadily through a crowded ballroom, ultimately settling on the face of the murderer. The film wasn’t a success, but Hitch’s sheer audacity – spending days to set up a single shot – was foreshadowing of what was to come.
The pulpy story comes to life through the combustible pairing of De Marney and Pilbeam, and the plot moves as such a wonderful pace. It really feels as if all of this is happening across one day. While things are dated, and the script is one of his most formulaic, the film is stuffed with light-hearted performances and clever setpieces, such as the strangely unnerving game of blind man’s buff.
Young and Innocent may not be as serious and controlled as The Man Who Knew Too Much or The 39 Steps, but I’d daresay it’s his most entertaining film to date. (It’s worth noting that we think of these films as “early films” only because we have the later ones. By this case, there were already Hitchcock aficionados in England, which I guess is the ultimate case of “we liked this series even before it was popular!”)
Hitch Cameo: loitering outside the courthouse in the first reels of the film.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, from a story by Alma Reville and a novel by Ethel Lina White
Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) wakes on a train journey through the Balkans to find that Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly lady she has befriended en route, is missing, and everyone on the train denies the woman ever existed. Accompanied by a sceptical musicologist (Michael Redgrave), Iris mounts an investigation onboard the trian, determined to unravel what she is sure is a conspiracy.
The Lady Vanishes is my favourite of Hitchcock’s work pre-Rebecca. This is not an objective decision – indeed, I’m sure it’s not a masterpiece – but this is a delightful film, effortlessly blending suspense and comedy, with a flawless cast playing to the cheap seats, and never letting things flag. Lockwood and Redgrave possess an effortless chemistry, and both were made for the scene. The exquisite supporting cast includes Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as two daffy, quintessential Englishmen more interested in cricket scores than espionage. Hitchcock always made the most of a claustrophobic setting (cf. Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window) and despite the fact that all but the opening and closing scenes take place onboard the train, the film feels both spacious and isolated at the same time.
(In writing this, Wikipedia has informed me that the cricket lovers, Charters and Caldicott, were so popular, they eventually made appearances in several other films and radio shows, completely unconnected to this one!)
The Lady Vanishes is where Hitch’s talent for suspense truly rises to the fore, simply by taking things out of your typical picaresque action/adventure story. The clues are so ingenious – a name written on the dust of a dining-car window, for example – and the dialogue so delightful, that The Lady Vanishes races along, and was indeed the film success that allowed Hitchcock to make the move to the USA.
This seems like as good a time as any to explain the notion of MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s favourite plot device. At heart, a MacGuffin is a plot element that catalyses or drives a film, but which ultimately doesn’t matter one bit. A road trip movie where two very different brothers must deliver an important gift, for instance, is entirely about the brothers bonding, and their wacky adventures. The gift could be a puppy, or a briefcase of money, or a small child, for all it would matter. Here, for instance, the vital piece of information that Miss Froy has, is the catalyst for the whole film, but ultimately is explained away in a silly final scene. Anyway…
The Lady Vanishes is a beautiful Hitchcock gem, gleefully over-the-top, yet endlessly enjoyable. The Man Who Knew Too Much may have been ripe for remake, but I would’ve liked to see the director take another shot at this film across the Atlantic. It was remade by Hammer in 1979, with Elliot Gould, Cybill Shepherd and Angela Lansbury in a much-derided version that I happen to enjoy. But nothing beats the power of the original.
Hitch Cameo: The director pops up at Victoria Station at film’s end.
Jamaica Inn (1939)
written by Sidney Gilliat, Joan Harrison, Alma Reville from a novel by Daphne DuMaurier
In 19th century Cornwall, Officer James Trehearne (Robert Newton) infiltrates a gang of smugglers, only to find his life in danger. He is saved by Mary Yellen (Maureen O’Hara), and alerts her to the smugglers’ crimes: wrecking ships, and then looting them whilst killing the crew. In search of sanctuary, however, Mary and James can’t discern who to trust…
If I’d have to compare the experience of watching Jamaica Inn to something, I’d probably choose watching a bunch of lobotomised monkeys try and play piano, and then repeatedly bashing your head against a brick wall.
Oh, wait, that isn’t a satisfactory review? Alright then, see below:
Hitchcock’s first Daphne DuMaurier adaptation is an erratic farewell to his British films. Hitchcock made very few period films, and they were rarely his best (*coughUnderCapricorncough*). With studio-bound sets, and a relatively uneventful pace for a smuggling adventure film, Jamaica Inn just doesn’t feel developed. James and Mary are straight-and-narrow characters from a Boys’ Own book. O’Hara does her best, but even her considerable talent is fighting a losing battle, and there’s just not much going on for any of her supporting characters. Worse, Charles Laughton appears to have walked out of a Leslie Nielsen film, with his hammy, cartoonish performance as a Justice of the Peace who takes in our heroes, but has secrets of his own. Reportedly, Laughton took over the film, even bringing in playwright J.B. Priestley to tidy up his character’s dialogue. It’s an eye-catching performance, but it would fit better in a children’s pantomime than a film… any film.
Jamaica Inn is an odd film, which strains the patience of surely any filmgoer. Hitch reportedly was killing time as he made the transition to Hollywood, under the wing of major producer David O. Selznick. And Hitch does bring his trademark visual style to the film, making for some eerie scenes of smuggler’s coves, and a a lot of clever, if obvious, shots, where the camera will cut from one scene to a thematically linked image, commenting on the action or dialogue. With a film that is unashamed about its “good or evil?” characters (like an average season of 24), Hitch can have a lot of fun with themes of light and dark. In fact, this astounding website – part of the 1000 Frames of Hitchcock project – suggests Jamaica Inn may be the darkest (visually speaking) of all Hitch’s black-and-white films.
There’s a lot to bemoan in Jamaica Inn, but it really doesn’t matter. The occasional dud in a career full of classics is forgiveable, particularly as Hitchcock was about to be absolved of all sins with his Hollywood debut.
Hitch Cameo: For the last time, the director himself does not appear. Once he reached Hollywood, the director would begin making regularly cameos first as a kind of in-joke, then as almost superstition, and finally as a permanent adornment in his ever-expanding box of tricks.
Well, that’s it from me for this edition of my Hitchcock reviews. Next time, we’ll track Hitch’s early progress in America, where he struck gold with Rebecca and then found himself bouncing around the labyrinthine studio system.