Sorry for disappearing, but I ended up taking a short road trip up the coast to Mendocino. Along the way I made a brief Hitchcock pilgrimage to the lovely village of Bodega, location of The Birds, to be discussed in a few weeks. While delightful, if not quite as foggy as I would have liked, that meant less viewing time for the thirteen films I needed to cover. [Side note: Thirteen is a number near and dear to Hitchcock’s heart as well as the name of his very first, unfinished (and now lost) silent film.]
Another reason it took me a bit longer to post about Hitchcock’s British period is that I hadn’t before seen most of these. While The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are longtime favorites that I can easily conjure up in my mind’s eye, the others were completely new. Some ended up being pleasant surprises and others were a bit of a chore.
As a completist, I’m glad I saw them all, but I think you could safely ignore most of his early talkies. As noted last week, Blackmail is quite interesting, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek out the others (unless you love early talkies, in which case, they almost all have some sort of merit). It is really when Hitchcock renews his partnership with Michael Balcon (producer of his early silents, including The Lodger) that his British period takes off. Starting with The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 through The Lady Vanishes in 1938, these films all hold up very well.
Of course, as always, it is critical to seek out good transfers whenever possible. Three of these films (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes) are part of the Criterion collection, so get those if you can. The complete filmography can be found at the bottom of this post.
The Top Five to Watch
Best Film: The 39 Steps. This movie has everything we will later look for in a Hitchcock picture: suspense, the wrong man, MacGuffins, trains, blondes, and so on. One could argue that one of Hitchcock’s most famous films, North by Northwest, is essentially a remake of this original, as an ordinary, innocent man is pulled into a spy ring’s activities. The story, adapted from the popular John Buchan novel, which I read for my Classic Boys Adventures book salon, was Hitchcock’s most successful motion picture of the interwar.
Favorite Film: The Lady Vanishes. This is one of the first Hitchcocks I remember seeing. It has many elements of what I love about Regency romances and probably the most comedic elements of any of his “suspense” films. If you’ve seen Flightplan, you have an idea of the basic plot: An old English woman’s disappearance during a train trip leads a young woman into a complicated web of intrigue when no one believes her story. But there is so much more here, including the most fleshed-out cast of characters in any Hitchcock film.
Best Underlying Plot: The Man Who Knew Too Much. You may be familiar with the Jimmy Stewart-Doris Day version, which is a Technicolor and VistaVision remake of this first in Hitchcock’s series of espionage thrillers of the 1930s. I understand why Hitchcock attempted to remake it, because there are definitely technical and production weaknesses, but the pacing in this one is so much better than the later version. Bonus: This is Peter Lorre’s first film in English.
Most Underrated: Secret Agent. Oddly enough, this film is not based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (see below), but rather the short story collection Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham (based on the author’s experience in British Intelligence). This story of an English novelist who returns home from WWI to find that a government agency has faked a report of his death and wants him to travel to Switzerland to track down a German agent, reminded me greatly of Waiting for Sunrise.
Best Adaptation: Sabotage, based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Sabotage is a great example of hewing closely to a literary plot, but updating it with modern, filmic elements. I love the fact that Hitchcock chooses to make Verloc the owner of a movie house, and he uses that setting to his full advantage. Be prepared, this one takes some shocking twists and turns.
And now the real awards!
Time I’ll Never Get Back Award: Juno and the Paycock. I was prepared for not liking this by the now-defunct Watching the Directors podcast, but, wow, it was worse than I thought. This may have been a successful play, but it is a remarkably boring film. The transfer was certainly atrocious (the tops of people’s head are often cut off, for example), but it suffers more from “filmed theater” syndrome than anything.
Most Misleading Title: The Skin Game. There are definitely some interesting shots in this movie, but very little skin. Overall, there is not much to recommend this “talking film” adaptation of a play about feuding neighbors, one an old money landowner, the other a nouveau riche industrialist (the Hillcrists and the Hornblowers—just guess which is which).
Best “Silent” Talkie: Rich and Strange. This story about a bored couple who inherit money and travel the world is an odd entry in the Hitchcock canon, but I’ve seen it written that this is semi-autobiographical about the Hitchcocks’ marriage, so make of that what you will. The couple dynamic is certainly one we’ll see often in his movies—smart, sophisticated, and madly in love despite appearances. An early talkie, only 20 to 25 percent of this film involves dialogue.
Ending with the Highest HSQ*: Murder! This is probably the best of the early Hitchcocks. The story revolves around a murder trial and its aftermath, when a sympathetic jury member tries to prove the innocence of the woman he has condemned. Obviously, I do not want to elaborate on the ending, but let’s just say I was not expecting that at all.
*Holy Shit Quotient, if you’re wondering.
Best Dressed: Elsa Carrington in Secret Agent. The first gown we see Madeleine Carroll wear is the showstopper above. As a rule, I find that there are a lot of crazy and/or hideous outfits in 1930s films, but I think I love everything Carroll wore in this one. She especially stands out since many Hitchcock films of this period feature an abundance of tweed.
Favorite MacGuffin: The 39 Steps. What is a MacGuffin? Basically, it’s a plot point, the thing everyone is looking for or trying to figure out, but whose specific identity or meaning is ultimately unimportant to the audience. While most people might say the MacGuffin here is a stolen set of plans, I would argue that it is also the “39 steps” themselves. I love this one, because the real meaning of the title could have been used (actual physical steps leading down a cliff), but Hitchcock chooses to completely ignore it and never explain the origin of the term. So, beyond being the first MacGuffin, it is actually the perfect MacGuffin.
Favorite Icy Blonde: Madeleine Carroll as both Pamela in The 39 Steps and Elsa in Secret Agent.
Favorite Couple: Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes.
Favorite Supporting Characters: The cricket fans in The Lady Vanishes. While I love the couple formed by Redgrave and Lockwood, Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford get a lot of screen time and totally steal the show.
Best Technical Achievement: The tracking shot in Young and Innocent. In general, this extremely loose adaptation of Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles is a lesser version of The 39 Steps, but it is worth watching for the one uninterrupted shot that sweeps across a ballroom to zoom in on the blinking eyes of the killer.
Best Cut: From the screaming landlady to the train whistle in The 39 Steps. Of course, we saw a forerunner of this idea with a similar sound cue in Blackmail.
Best Unintentional Noises Off Homage: Murder! One of the best scenes in this movie, perhaps second only to the climatic ending (see above), is that of the attempted interview of theater troupe members backstage during a performance. Yes, I’m currently reading Skios by Michael Frayn, why do you ask?
Best Unintentional Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Homage: Waltzes from Vienna. I just couldn’t get Chitty Chitty Bang Bang out of my head while watching this movie about a young Strauss who goes to work in the bakery of his girlfriend’s father. Like Chitty, there are many great slapstick moments as a wealthy couple prepares a caper to ensure that “The Blue Danube Waltz” gets a public premiere. This film gets little love, but I thought it was quite funny and modern.
Most Confusing Plot: Number Seventeen. Given the short length of this film, and the confusing nature of the plot, one might be tempted to think it had been butchered by editors or footage was lost along the way, but I’ve found no evidence of this.
Most Expressionist: Number Seventeen. I wish this movie had been more fleshed out, because it is filled with great visuals and horror moments: ominous music, creeping hands, slamming doors, weird shadows. Unsurprisingly, there is a great shout-out to The Lodger with a hand creeping along the banister.
Speaking of creepy…
Most Gratuitous Clown Appearance: Murder! As if the hideous painting in Blackmail wasn’t enough, Hitchcock inserts a laughing clown into the final HSQ moments (see above) of this bizarre film.
Worst Hair: Peter Lorre as The General in Secret Agent. Luckily, Lorre actually plays the funny sidekick role in this film or else I would have had a harder time with it.
Worst Eyebrows: Charles Laughton as Sir Humphrey Pengaltan in Jamaica Inn. Laughton plays an outrageously pompous local squire who heads a band of Cornwall pirates in this rather stodgy period picture noted mostly for introducing Maureen O’Hara. In the original book by Daphne Du Maurier there was a lot more mystery; here, the only mystery is what the makeup artist was thinking.
Tensest Moment (tie): The bus ride in Sabotage and the moment when Ben is examining the gun in Number Seventeen. And many, many others…
Hitchcock Filmography: The British Talkies
Juno and the Paycock (1930)
The Skin Game (1931)
Rich and Strange (1931)
Number Seventeen (1932)
Waltzes from Vienna (1933)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The 39 Steps (1935)
Secret Agent (1936)
Young and Innocent (1938)
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Jamaica Inn (1939)