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Retrospective: The Films Of Alfred Hitchcock Pt. 1 (1925-1939)

Retrospective: The Films Of Alfred Hitchcock Pt. 1 (1925-1939)

This year, a Leytonstone-born Londoner born 113 years ago has been all the rage. The subject of two biopics, “The Girl” (which aired on HBO a few weeks back) and “Hitchcock” (which premieres at AFI Fest on Thursday), and the director of the newly named greatest film of all time “Vertigo,” he’s a man who’s been endlessly homaged, ripped off, and paid tribute to for decades — of course, we’re talking about Alfred Hitchcock.

The son of a greengrocer in East London, Hitchcock began working at an advertising company as a teenager, and submitted a number of twisty, witty short stories to the in-house magazine. This soon led to him moving into film, designing title cards for silents, and within five years he was directing. After a faltering start, with films that were cancelled, lost, or flops, the director had a major hit with thriller “The Lodger,” and it was that genre that would provide him with his greatest successes over the next 50 years or so.

This week sees a sparkly new Hitchcock Blu-ray box set released featuring a number of the director’s best-loved films, and to commemorate the occasion, we thought it seemed like the perfect time to go back and cast an eye over the (nearly) complete Hitchcock filmography. Being about as prolific as you could ask for, Hitch made over fifty films over the years, and as such, we’ve split the feature into two. Part one, today, takes a look at the director’s work in silents, and his early British talkies and his career before he crossed over to Hollywood debut. Tomorrow, we’ll kick off with “Rebecca” and track the films that saw him achieve global success, become a household name, and pick up five Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards (but, famously, never the win) Take a look at those prolific early years below, and check back tomorrow for much more.

“The Pleasure Garden” (1925)
Essentially the director’s feature debut (previous efforts “No. 13” and “Always Tell Your Wife” were, respectively, unfinished or uncredited, and have since been partially or wholly lost), had 1925’s “The Pleasure Garden” not been made by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s unlikely it would be of particular interest today. However in retrospect there is always the desire to comb through these early works to find glimmers of future genius and to trace the evolution of those preoccupations with which he would later became associated, and in this regard the film doesn’t completely disappoint. It’s a competently handled melodrama with some comedic and romantic elements, and one macabre murder sequence that will have amateur Hitchcock analysts nodding sagely and scribbling into their notebooks. The story is slight: Patsy, a goodhearted chorus girl befriends Jill, an out-of-luck performer who, as her star rises, reveals herself as unworthy of both Patsy’s friendship and the love of her trusting fiance. Patsy and Jill’s nice fiance are clearly destined from their initial meet-cute (they fall over one another in one of the film’s looser, more spontaneous-feeling scenes), even if their good natures prevent them from seeing that, until Jill marries someone else and Patsy’s husband turns out to be a deranged, murderous adulterer. It’s nicely performed, if occasionally marred by silent-movie histrionics and a sort of casual imperialist racism that was unremarkable at the time, but is ugly to a contemporary eye. So undoubtedly, a solid directorial beginning, but we shouldn’t overstate its importance either — you may be surprised by its watchability for a silent film made over 85 years ago, but then this was the also the year of “Battleship Potemkin” and Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” — silent cinema, or, indeed “cinema” as it was known then, had already reached a pitch of sophistication and artistry elsewhere, and compared to those bona-fide milestones, “The Pleasure Garden” is but a trinket. [C]

“The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog” (1927)
The Lodger” was the first feature to put Hitchcock on the map. And what makes the film stand out now is the extent to which it feels like the arrival of the director, fully-formed, with many of the stylistic tics and thematic links that would come to play over the next half-century or so already in place (right down to the first appearance of his soon-to-be-trademark cameo, which came about only because an extra failed to show up). Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, it’s set in a London plagued by a serial killer known as The Avenger, who’s picking off blonde women around town. Model Daisy (June — yes, just June) is unconcerned, more interested in the curious, but dreamy new tenant Jonathan Drew (original heartthrob Ivor Novello) in her mother’s house. The pair are soon drawn to each other, but could Jonathan be the killer? Fresh from his time in Germany, where he spent time observing Murnau and Lang, Hitchcock had picked up an expressionist trick or two. The gorgeous sepia fog is, as the title might suggest, as much a character as anything else in the film, shadows come into play in a big way, and he’s starting to experiment with the camera, pushing in on the characters, and filming directly down staircases in a way that directly prefigures “Vertigo.” Perhaps most interesting of all is his use of casting. Novello (played of late by Jeremy Northam in “Gosford Park“) was a clean-cut star of music, stage and screen, and Hitchcock is immediately toying with the audience’s expectations by placing the actor in such an ambiguous part. He couldn’t possibly be a killer, could he? He’s much too handsome for that… One suspects that if he had free rein (the shoot wasn’t a happy experience), the ending might have been more ambivalent, but even so, this remains the foundation on which the rest of the director’s career was based on. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: 0:03, sitting at a desk in the newsroom.

“The Ring” (1927)
The second of three 1927 features from Hitchcock (they stacked them high and sold them cheap back then) “The Ring” also marks a definite move forward in terms of the director’s shooting style and storytelling ability. In fact it’s the only film on which Hitch takes full and sole writer’s credit in addition to directing, but if you think that might make it the most quintessentially Hitchcockian of films, let us disavow you: “The Ring” is a straight-up melodrama in which no one gets murdered, blackmailed, driven insane, mistaken for a criminal, or in any way embroiled in a sinister plot. Instead, it’s a simple love triangle story: Mabel is a ticket-seller in a carnival-style boxing ring where her fiance, Jack “One Round” Sander challenges all comers. She catches the eye of the debonair championship boxer Bob Corby, who offers Jack a position as his sparring partner so he can continue to pursue Mabel. Mabel and Jack marry, but Mabel’s affair with Bob continues until she eventually leaves Jack. In true sports drama fashion, Jack works his way up the bill until he faces Bob in the ring for the championship, and during the climactic match Mabel realises she loves him and rushes to his corner in time to restore his confidence and get him the KO.  So yeah, the plot’s not hugely thrilling, but what is exciting is to watch Hitchcock’s growing confidence in the medium — there are moments here that don’t feel just like a director establishing his style, but like classical Hollywood filmmaking technique being forged. So there are really elegant examples of time ellipses — from the fizz of freshly poured champagne flattening in the glasses, to a fat reel of entrance tickets getting smaller and smaller through a series of dissolves.  And there’s comedy here too, such as when a side character takes the coat of the latest challenger, and doesn’t even bother setting it down — instead we stay on him as the brief fight happens offscreen before the inevitably stunned, defeated challenger reels back into his coatsleeves, seconds later. Lillian Hall-Davis, with whom Hitch would reteam, does an admirable job of making the mercurial Mabel somewhat sympathetic, but mainly this is a film to be enjoyed for its details — the symbolism of the various “rings,” the unusual framing and the nascent special effects (at one point a scene is played out for a while in a reflection on water; in another, a character’s drunkenness is denoted by a distorted POV shot). It’s not without flaws, but if you can get by the racism of the opening scene (and the N-word that crops up egregiously in one of the intertitles) “The Ring” is a diverting pit-stop on any journey through Hitchcock. [B-]

“Downhill” (1927)
Probably the least engaging of Hitchcock’s three 1927 films, “Downhill” stars popular leading man Ivor Novello (who also co-wrote the play upon which it is based), as Roddy, the world’s oldest public schoolboy, who takes the fall for a less well-to-do friend who gets a local barmaid pregnant. Expelled and cast out by his father, Roddy finds work as an actor, receives an unexpected windfall and marries faithless leading lady Julia. She strings him along until his money runs out, at which point he becomes a gigolo in France, before hitting rock bottom in a crummy boarding house in Marseilles, prior to a sudden reconciliation with his father and an “all’s right with the world” ending. Now, there are films that withstand the passage of time and retain relevance despite intervening decades and changing fashions. But “Downhill” features a plot driven primarily by the mechanics of the English class system of the 1920s, and as such, it feels so archaic it creaks. The “lower classes,” from the barmaid, to the guilty schoolfriend who is on a scholarship, to the actress wife, are grasping and selfish and faithless, while our high-born rich hero is the repository of only good and noble impulses. With all due respect to the mores and morals of bygone days, it sticks in our craw that, as though to symbolise the depths to which he has sunk, we linger on our hero suffering the indignity of taking the underground — horrors! Stylistically, however, there are some interesting flourishes, from the scene which starts with Roddy looking refined in a tux, only to reveal he’s a waiter, only then to reveal he’s a waiter in stage play; to some unusual POV shots and hallucinatory scenes; to the notable scarcity of intertitles. But it’s just too ossified a plot to be redeemed by a few positives. It’s all deus ex machina, happenstance and nobody much learning anything about anything except that: 1. working for a living is bad 2. ugly old ladies are enough to trigger a nervous breakdown and 3. there is no greater achievement in life than being able to play rugby for the “old school.” Honestly we can’t find much that this contributes to the Hitchcock back catalogue — watch and be glad it’s 2012.  [D+]

“The Farmer’s Wife” (1928)
Like 1927, 1928 was a three-film year for Hitchcock, kicking off with “The Farmer’s Wife.” It’s a strange film in the context of the man’s career, a not-terribly successful comedy that relies on some rather cheap narrative tricks to make its predictable plot play out the way it must. Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis, showing a different side from the role she played in “The Ring” and proving the film’s high point in the process) is the loyal housekeeper for a country farmer, Samuel Sweetland. We know they’re “country” because of the awkward vernacular the intertitles are written in (“I don’t mind they pillowy women” and “… us’ll write a list…”) which just comes across as patronizing. Anyway, he’s a widower and following the marriage of his beloved daughter, he starts to think of marrying again. Minta, despite clearly wanting the position for herself, helps him make a list of potential wives, to whom he then proposes in grossly unromantic fashion, and is unable to fathom it when they turn him down one by one. Only when he has no options left does he notice Minta, who accepts him and gets to take off her housekeeper’s apron and put on a shiny dress. It’s a film that, even for its day and genre, is slight, and with the comedy not delivering and the romance, well, unromantic, there’s not a lot here to get your teeth into. And even within the canon it seems one of Hitch’s less inspired works, with the confidence and fluidity in evidence in some of the previous year’s work nowhere in evidence. In fact, here some of those tricks, like semi-dissolves to show Sweetland’s “imaginings,” simply irritate because they’re so heavy-handed. Hall-Davis is good and underplays nicely, but really that serves more to throw into unflattering contrast the telegraphed performances of her co-stars. Hitchcock’s silents are, in general, less substantial entries in his CV, but even within that context, “The Farmer’s Wife” feels vanishingly insignificant. [D]

“Easy Virtue” (1928)
Perhaps failing to notice that a lot of what made Noel Coward’s play “Easy Virtue” a hit on stage in 1925 was Coward’s facility with language and dialogue, Hitchcock elected to make this silent version in 1928. Then again, perhaps he was excited by the challenge of rendering visually the verbal wit and nuance of the play. If the latter, it’s safe to say he didn’t wholly succeed: as a film it is not unbearable by any means, but it’s essentially a morality play which means that the loss of some of the subtler shadings of characterization that the silent format necessitates makes it feel at times rather on the nose and lacking in depth. Without sophisticated wordplay that reveals hidden motivations and agendas there is nothing to distract from the bare mechanics of a plot which now seems fusty, dusty and old-fashioned, reflecting as it does the ingrained misogyny of the period in which it was set. Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans) is an attractive blonde married to a brutish drunk, who becomes the defendant in a notorious adultery case despite being innocent of any infidelity. Reputation ruined, she flees to France where she finds love with young John Whittaker, who is, and wilfully remains, ignorant of her past. They marry and return to England where Whittaker’s family, especially his mother, set about making Larita’s life difficult, until her secret comes out and she martyrs herself by getting a second divorce which will allow John to marry another woman, but will see her splashed across the newspapers and gossip rags all over again. There are some sweet touches here and there – Larita and John’s meet is very cute indeed (he hits her in the eye with a tennis ball), and a scene in which we learn about Larita’s acceptance of John’s proposal through the changing expressions on an eavesdropping telephone operator’s face feels like it’s going straight into the Hitchcock playbook. But a few contemporary-feeling elements can’t distract from the sanctimony of the film’s premise. Narratively, it is reminiscent of 1927’s “Downhill,” but there, circumstance eventually favours the young, innocent hero with a complete restoration of all he’s lost. Here, Larita may be innocent, but she’s marked as a fallen woman, and so by the end, her only option is to sacrifice herself and fall further. It’s a story that’s of its time — and if Hitchock was perhaps unwise in attempting the silent version, he might have taken comfort in knowing that the all-talkie 2008 incarnation with Jessica Biel isn’t much better. [C]
Hitchcock Cameo: Walks past the tennis court at 21:15.

“The Manxman” (1929)
An adaptation of an 1890s novel by Hall Caine that was an absolute blockbuster at the time (but is now essentially forgotten), “The Manxman” marks not only the director’s last silent film (his next picture, “Blackmail” was remade as a sound version), but also one of his last ventures into full-on melodrama. Set on the Isle of Man (but filmed in Cornwall — ironically enough, tax breaks now mean that the Isle of Man is a popular U.K. film location), it’s a fairly creaky old-fashioned tale of two lifelong friends, fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), who fall for the same woman, Kate (Anny Ondra). Pete proposes first, but when he goes off to seek his fortune in Africa, he asks Philip to look after her. The pair fall in love, marry and have a child when they believe Pete to be dead, only for the prodigal fiance to return alive and well. Yes, it’s essentially the plot of “Pearl Harbor” (and was pretty rote in the 1920s, so you’d think a 21st century screenwriter would have tried a little harder…) The locations are stunning, DoP Jack E. Cox pulling off perhaps his finest work with Hitch, and there’s some very nifty editing, but despite that, and a beguiling performance from Hungarian actress Ondra (who’d go on to marry legendary boxer Max Schmeling), it’s one of the director’s least memorable films of the era. The performances by Brisson and Keen are quite ropey, the morality feels finger-wagging, and Hitch ultimately feels a bit disinterested. Worth watching for the visuals (a gorgeous new restoration just premiered at the London Film Festival), but its place outside of the canon is mostly deserved. [C]

“Blackmail” (1929)
It’s often asserted that the early days of talking pictures saw a regression of filmic technique from the fluidity of the late ‘20s in order to accommodate the cumbersome logistics of recording sound on set. But whether “Blackmail,” Hitchcock’s first talkie, proves or disproves that rule is up for debate. Because “Blackmail,” after its cronky, silent and weirdly procedural first 8 minutes, is pretty great, and arguably marks a high watermark in Hitch’s early filmography, but it was planned as a silent — in fact, a silent version, which required some reshooting, was also released, as many theaters hadn’t yet installed sound equipment. Perhaps as a result, and probably more successfully than Hitch’s next few films, it managed to straddle that awkward changeover period with fewer major compromises of its visual style.  So we get some lovely expressionistic moments, like a shadow falling across our heroine’s neck like a noose and a climactic chase through the British Museum, which are Hitchcockian before that was even a thing. What’s more surprising is that even though this was the director’s first time out with sound, there are moments of invention. In a technique that is basically the sonic equivalent of a subjective shot to show a character’s mental state, the chatter of a neighbour becomes reduced to background noise with just the word “knife” jumping out distinctly every time she says it, putting us inside the guilty mind of our protagonist. The plot: pretty but petulant Alice is the victim of an attempted rape during which she grabs a knife (knife…knife…knife) and kills her attacker. Her boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, finds her glove at the scene and realises her involvement, but so does a shady blackmailer who tracks her to the shop her father runs, where a nasty parlour game plays out between the three of them and her unwitting parents. Anny Ondra is terrific in selling Alice’s transition from silly, flirty shopgirl to almost catatonically fearful killer, a performance all the more remarkable because her accent was deemed unfit for the audience’s ears. And in the era before post-dubbing was possible, she instead mouthed her lines while another actress offscreen spoke them aloud. Hitch even gets in a little sly humor: Alice defends the authenticity of a new crime film out in theaters saying, “I heard they got a real criminal to direct it, just to be on the safe side.” It’s a fun ride, an important milestone for Hitch, oh, and all those people who like to say that “Vertigo” is the only Hitchcock where the killer gets away with it? They’re wrong… [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: A great one, and unusually lengthy, at about 20 seconds, you can see him being annoyed by a child reading a book on the tube, at the 10:25 mark.

“Juno & The Paycock” (1930)
Now that it was an option, Hitchcock leapt at the chance to tackle something positively packed with dialogue, and so for his first post-“Blackmail” project, he selected “Juno & The Paycock,” an adaptation of the classic stage play by one of Ireland’s most beloved playwrights, Sean O’Casey (and known as “The Shame Of Mary Boyle” in the U.S., for reasons lost to the mists of time). The plot revolves around the Dublin Boyle family — Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman), Juno (Sara Allgood), Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) — who are told by English solicitor Mr. Bentham (John Longden) that they’re due to become wealthy from an inheritance. The family celebrate, spending before it comes in, but it turns out that Mr. Bentham made the whole thing up, and the family are broke, Mary is left pregnant and Johnny is killed by the IRA for shopping a colleague to the authorities. It takes a sure hand to handle the play’s shift from comedy to tragedy (there was a terrific production a few years ago at London’s National Theatre starring Ciaran Hinds), but it’s not really to be found here, unfortunately. Hitchcock seems to be so enamored of being able to record dialogue that he forgets to do much but simply shoot a stage play, and many of the performers seem to forget that they’re acting for camera, going for broad caricatures rather than real people. The result is that when the gut-punch conclusion comes, it’s ultimately ineffective. We certainly regard it among the bottom rung of Hitchcock’s pictures, but you can see for yourself — the whole film’s available to watch on YouTube.[D+]

“Murder!” (1930)
HItchcock wasn’t much of a fan of the whodunnit genre, complaining that it “contains no emotion,” but he did make one exception, with this 1930 thriller. Serving as something of a love-letter to the theater world, like the later “Stage Fright,” and like his other 1930 film “Juno and the Paycock,” an adaptation of a play, it sees Diana Baring (Norah Baring), an actress, accused of murdering a colleague and set for the noose. But one juror, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), himself from the theater world, isn’t convinced of her guilt, and sets out to investigate the crime. It’s a fairly ridiculous set-up and like in ‘Juno,’ the director’s still finding it difficult to escape the stage origins of his material. But the signs are there that he’s starting to work it out with an impressive opening tracking shot, a lingering shot of the jury room, empty, while the verdict is delivered, and the superimposition of the victim’s face on the real killer as they hang themselves (the film also contains one major innovation; the first recorded use of voiceover to suggest internal monologue). And there’s some intriguing subtext in the motivations of the villain, which gives things some psychological depth, and a little camp value. It’s a reasonable watch, but probably interesting more as evidence of Hitch’s development as a director, and of the medium, than as a film itself. It’s worth noting that Hitchcock simultaneously shot a German-language version, “Mary” on the same sets with German actors — it was released in 1931. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: At the one hour mark, walking past the murder scene.

“The Skin Game” (1931)
A surprisingly watchable, if somewhat dated class-clash tale in the manner of Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu,” Hitchcock’s “The Skin Game” may fall far short of its peerless French counterpart, but it makes a divertingly atypical effort from the director nonetheless. Perhaps in contradiction to its salacious-sounding title (“skin game” basically being old slang for a rigged game of chance), the film details the feud between the local gentry, as represented by Squire Hillcrist, his haughty wife and feisty daughter whose family has lived in their house and on their land “since Elizabeth,” and self-made businessman Hornblower, whose brash manner and sensitivity to perceived slights against his family set the two dynasties in opposition. (This despite the mutual attraction between the Hillcrist daughter and Hornblower’s younger son.) It all comes to a head, saga-style, when the dirty tricks employed by both sides escalate to a tragic denouement, in which everyone loses the things they valued most: honour, love, money, respectability or any combination of the above. It’s attractively played, though Phyllis Konstam rather hams it up as the lady with the secret past, and it’s pretty even-handed for a film of this era, though we could wish that New Man Hornblower (the wonderful Edmund Gwenn) was allowed to gain a little more wisdom by the end. Still, while it’s a little static, as many early talkies tended to be, and stylistically it’s rather anonymous for the auteur Hitchcock would become, “The Skin Game” on its own merits, stands up rather well. [B-]

“Rich And Strange” (1932)
Rich And Strange” is a fairly apt title for one of the more atypical films of Hitchcock’s career, an odd, uneven, somewhat sour, strangely watchable comedy that sees the director really experimenting with the medium. Fred and Emily Hill (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry) are a British couple who set out on a cruise having received a telegram telling them that they’re getting an advance on an inheritance from a wealthy uncle. But almost as soon as they’re on board, they both immediately fall for others — Emily with Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), Fred with a German princess. But neither can quite go through with it, and end up shipwrecked, captured by pirates and eating a cat. As it might sound, it’s a fragmented and tonally bonkers film, that veers from light Noel Cowardish romantic comedy to curiously hard-hitting tragedy, and even in form, the film seems caught awkwardly between the silent era (particularly in the performances, which are far from naturalistic) and the talkies. But it’s oddly likable for all that, mainly because it feels like Hitch is really playing in the sandbox, trying to tackle as many genres as he can in 90-odd minutes, and chucking some innovative shots and optical tricks at the camera that again demonstrate his growing understanding of the medium. [B-]

“Waltzes From Vienna” (1933)
So how devoted a Hitchcock completist are you? Because no matter how finely attuned your critical faculties, and no matter how dedicated you may be to tracing every moment in Hitchcock-the-auteur’s origin story, “Waltzes From Vienna” is going to tax your patience. Apparently a filler movie taken while Hitch was under contract, this is entirely phoned in and almost completely devoid of any of those inspired flourishes that can make even the least of his pictures worth the watching. A stuffy costume drama/romance/musical/biopic, the film veers from misjudged slapstick comedy, to grating chemistry-free romance, to father/son drama via endless repetitions of the Blue Danube waltz. Johann Strauss Jr, in the shadow of his famous composer father (he literally plays second fiddle in Dad’s orchestra), has dreams of a composing career of his own, in which he is helped by a Countess and hindered by his jealous girlfriend who is, essentially, a thundering bitch. Through subterfuge his patroness gets him a gig playing his new waltz which is of course a huge success, that after some more pointless action and back window/ladder-based farcical nonsense, forces his father (himself a thundering bastard) to reappraise his son’s talents, and his selfish shrew of a girlfriend to realise she always loved him. The dullest film on this list by quite some distance, it’s not even an interesting failure, and was believed lost for a long time. Pity it didn’t stay that way, as at best it can be judged to be Hitchcock taking a paycheck and a nice long snooze immediately prior to coming out with his first full-fledged “Hitchcockian” talkie feature, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” the following year. [D-]

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934)
Essentially the birth of the “wrong man” thriller that would lead to some of the director’s most popular works, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” came out of Hitchcock’s attempt to adapt one of the popular “Bulldog Drummond” detective stories from the screen. The deal fell through, but Hitch, and writer Charles Bennett (who penned the source material for “Blackmail“) recycled their plot for an original tale partially inspired by the director’s honeymoon in St. Moritz with wife Alma seven years earlier. Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on holiday in the Alps with their precocious daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) when a dying French spy asks them to pass some information regarding an assassination plot on to the British consul. But the villains, led by Abbott (Peter Lorre, making his English-language debut, having just fled Nazi Germany), have kidnapped Betty, and the Lawrences are forced to use all their ingenuity to stop the plot, and save their daughter. Famously later remade by the director in the U.S (which we’ll get to in part two), he come pretty close to cracking it the first time around. Bob and Jill are a sort of sparky British version of Nick and Norah Charles, Lorre is a terrific villain (even though he had to learn his English dialogue phonetically), and overall the film’s a witty and thrilling picture, and possibly the most entertaining thing the director had made up to this point. Which of the two is the superior version is up to the taste of the individual viewer, but the noirish stylings and stronger female lead give this one the edge for us.
Hitchcock Cameo: Some have suggested that you can see the director walking through shot at the 33:10 mark, but it’s pretty much impossible to tell if it’s actually him or not. [B+]

“The 39 Steps” (1935)
Probably the first truly great Hitchcock picture, this is the one where everything that he’d been working toward coalesces into a gripping, enormously entertaining chase thriller that feels like it could have been made yesterday. Adapted by “Blackmail” and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” scribe Charles Bennett (really finding a groove with the director), from the seminal 1915 spy novel by John Buchan, it sees the perfectly ordinary Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) finding himself embroiled in an espionage ring after watching a performance at a music hall in London, England. Wrongly identified as a spy and a murderer, he flees London for Scotland, pursued by various agents of the law and the underworld. Enter the soon to be tried-and-true, Hitchcock Icy Blonde, played by Madeleine Carroll, who becomes entangled in the chase. Slightly more screwball and playful than some of the director’s other films of the period, it’s filled with sight-gags (including poor Carrol being handcuffed to Donat and dragged every-which-way, much to Hitchcock’s delight) that mix nicely with the more classically Hitchcockian spy-chase-suspense-thriller narrative, establishing a formula that would serve him well over the decades to come. Donat makes a perfectly dapper and surprisingly physically impressive lead, who meets mortal peril with debonair quips and self-deprecating charm — it’s a shame it’s his only work with Hitchcock — while Carroll is the template for the Hitchcock female lead, sexy, smart and strong-willed. It’s been remade three times since, but this stands head and shoulders above all the others, and really sees the director come of age, truly bringing him to the attention of world audiences (thanks to its stars, it was a huge hit both home and abroad). [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Throwing away a cigarette box outside the theatre at the 06:56 mark.

“Secret Agent” (1936)
Having just hit his stride with “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The 39 Steps,” 1936’s “Secret Agent” saw Hitch back in similar territory, with the director taking on W. Somerset Maugham‘s popular character Ashenden, a writer-turned-spy, here played by the great John Gielgud. Somehow, it’s not as well-regarded as its predecessors among the cinerati, but it’s rather a terrific little film in many ways. Gielgud (who hated the film, and never worked with the director again) plays Ashenden, a writer and solider who fakes his death in the midst of the First World War in order to prevent a German agent from reaching Turkey and allying with local forces. He teams up with charming killer The General (Peter Lorre), and Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), a fellow agent doubling as his wife, in what is a much more serious look at the espionage genre than its two predecessors, examining the cost of being a spy a good 70 years before Bourne and co. did the same. And this does mean that it’s slightly lacking the spark of the ones that came before. But it’s taut, and thrilling, and with Lorre and Carroll, has a supporting team that a “Mission: Impossible” movie would be proud of. Holding up surprisingly well, it’s one of the films on the director’s CV that deserves serious reconsideration. [B+]

“Sabotage” (1936)
A rather different, and somewhat less successful (though far from uninteresting) take on the spy flick than the same year’s “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage” is, confusingly, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel “The Secret Agent,” and unrelated to the later, and superior “Saboteur.” It focuses on a London cinema owner, Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), who’s actually an agent for an Eastern European terrorist cell (stripped of the anarchist leanings of the novel, and therefore of much of the political subtext). In order to nab him, Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder, replacing an unavailable Robert Donat) goes undercover as a greengrocer, only to be drawn to Verloc’s young and unknowing wife (Sylvia Sidney). Hitchcock himself was derisive of the film, later complaining to Francois Truffaut that he felt the key bomb sequence (in which Sidney’s younger brother is blown up on a bus carrying explosives for Verloc) broke his key rule of suspense; that the threat was always more thrilling than the consequences. And it’s hard not to feel that the film’s a little compromised, from its derivations from the source material (though Christopher Hampton‘s 1996 remake, under the novel’s title, isn’t much better), to the casting, with none of the actors truly making an impression. That said, there’s an intriguing ambiguity to the picture, with Homolka making a curiously sympathetic mad bomber, and despite Hitchcock’s views, the bomb sequence is surprising, shocking and powerful. A disappointment, certainly, but not one without its pleasures. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Nine minutes in, walking down the pavement as kiosk shutters come down.

“Young And Innocent” (1937)
Released in America as “The Girl Was Young,” this mystery stars 18-year-old Nova Pilbeam as the titular woman, Erica Burgoyne, who is naively swept into helping an innocent man, Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney), prove he wasn’t responsible for the death of his famous actress lover. “Young and Innocent” doesn’t quite rank with Hitchcock’s best British films, but it’s an entertaining picture that already features many of Hitchcock’s hallmarks, including a tale around the wrongfully accused, a blond beauty, an impressive pan across a crowded room and a sprinkling of humor to lighten the proceedings. Since most of the film is told from Erica’s perspective, we’d have loved to have seen a bit more doubt cast on Robert’s innocence throughout the film, but this wasn’t meant to be “Suspicion,” and instead the film relies on her naiveté to drive their interactions. We’d be remiss in not mentioning that the final scene of this film (and its American artwork) features actors in blackface, but allowing the initial shock for modern audiences to distract from the climax means that you’d miss some masterful camerawork throughout the scene. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: Sixteen minutes in, outside the courtroom with the camera  

“The Lady Vanishes” (1938)
This train-set film reveals a few tropes Hitchcock would return to time and again: a single setting, a racing plot, a light touch with tone, and a sophisticated play on perspective that never gives anything away and keeps the surprises coming left and right. Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood play an unlikely couple who meetcute in a mountainside inn in the remote country of Bandrika, before embarking on a train journey back home that is quickly sent off the rails with the disappearance of sweet governess Miss Froy. The dashing duo set off on a wild-goose chase that reveals a plot of international espionage, all the while contending with their fellow travelers, a motley crew of wacky characters who throw up obstacles at every front. Hitch allows every one a full characterization and time to riff, while also keeping the story moving along, right up to the final shootout that caps everything off. It’s a fun little mystery that feels fresh and modern today, and a unique story that could only have been pulled off with such panache and flair by the master himself. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Smoking a cigarette at Victoria Station at 1:32:31

“Jamaica Inn” (1939)
The notorious whipping boy of the legend’s CV, on paper it’s hard to see where “Jamaica Inn” went so horribly wrong. Based on the book by Daphne du Maurier (eventually also the source for “Rebecca” and “The Birds”), the story concerns smugglers who tamper with lighthouses in order to ultimately rob the unlucky ships that run aground, killing all aboard and delivering the spoils to Humphrey Pengallon, the magistrate. The niece of one crook (also the keeper of the titular inn) discovers her uncle’s true ways and interferes with the lynching of a former member who also happens to be a double agent, sent undercover by the law. The two escape from the clutches of the group, working tirelessly to stop another shipwreck — and hey, don’t you know it, they start to dig each other’s company. Though many Hitchcock elements are in play and the talent — Robert Newton, Maureen O’Hara, Charles Laughton (who would eventually go on to make the incredible “The Night Of The Hunter”) — is pretty considerable, the entire film is rather strained and lifeless. Both the smugglers and the magistrate are downright weird characters, but instead of utilizing their oddness, it seems that Hitchcock hoped we’d ignore it. The director spoke of clashing with Laughton, who was additionally a producer on the project and had his own ideas of how to run the show. His idea for the character clearly clashed with the director’s, creating a tonally awkward and often silly atmosphere. The last film Hitchcock did before journeying to America was one that he was always unhappy with, and could barely talk about when interviewed extensively by Francois Truffaut. It’s understandable: aside from the exciting opening sequence of a ship hijacking, most of ‘Jamaica’ is dull as nails. [D+]

Other: Hitchcock was meant to have made his directorial debut at Gainsborough Pictures in 1922 with “Number 13,” also known as “Mrs. Peabody” — filming began, but it ran out of money, and any footage has been lost. A similar fate also met his 1927 second feature, “The Mountain Eagle,” a Kentucky-set melodrama filmed in Austria. The director told Truffaut that he thought it was “awful,” and that he was “not sorry there are no known prints.” But the film remains a holy grail for cinephiles. Around the same time, Hitchcock co-directed (with Seymour Hicks) a short comedy called “Always Tell Your Wife,” but only a single reel survives.

Another curio for Hitchcock fans is “Elstree Calling,” a “cine-radio review” involving sketches and musical numbers, in the manner of films like “Paramount on Parade.” Hitchcock contributed the linking segments, about a man trying to tune in to the revue on television (several years before TV broadcasts began in the U.K.; it may be the first movie to directly refer to television).

Something had to slip through our cracks, and we were ultimately unable to track down copies of either 1928’s “Champagne,” a poorly-regarded light silent comedy starring Betty Balfour, or 1932’s comedy-heist-thriller “Number Seventeen.” If you’ve seen either, do let us know what you think of them in the comments section below.

– Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Christopher Bell, Sam Chater

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