Friday, March 11, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock: Pre-Hollywood

Alfred Hitchcock had already directed 28 films in England before David O. Selznick brought him to Hollywood to direct Rebecca (which won Best Picture in 1940).  Many of Hitchock's English films are lesser known today, in part because some have fallen into the public domain and often only poor quality versions of them are available. But it is worth going back to see how Hitchcock's style evolved, and several of his early films are genuine classics.

The Netflix Watch Instantly options do go a bit earlier than these more famous titles listed below.  Currently streaming is the silent version of Blackmail (1929), which almost immediately was re-worked to become England's first sound feature (also in 1929).  Two other early Hitchcocks include the silent Easy Virtue (1928) and an early sound feature, Number 17 (1932).

The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1934, 74 minutes)
Netflix: The Lawrences are vacationing in Switzerland when a secret-agent friend is mortally wounded. Before dying, he utters some cryptic words revealing a planned assassination in London, and things only get worse when the couple's daughter is kidnapped. With little police help, the parents take matters into their own hands. Alfred Hitchcock's black-and-white classic was later remade in color, starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Netflix link.

Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that he considered his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much to be the superior film, stating that the 1934 version was the work of a talented amateur, while the 1956 version was the work of a professional.  But the original is still worth watching on its own terms, because Hitchcock as a talented amateur is still worth watching.

Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1936, 76 minutes) 
Netflix: Director Alfred Hitchcock adapts Joseph Conrad's novel into a black-and-white classic. Based on her husband's recent absence from home, a movie-theater cashier (Sylvia Sydney) suspects that her spouse is involved in espionage. Meanwhile, her teenaged brother travels through London, unaware of the time bomb he's carrying in a reel can. Netflix link.

This film is often confused with a later Hitchcock film with a similar title, Saboteur (1946).  (Saboteur is the film with the iconic image of Norman Lloyd falling from the Statue of Liberty.)  Further adding to the confusion is that the title of Sabotage was changed for its American release to The Woman Alone.  Hitchcock famously dismissed a bombing sequence in this film for breaking all of his own rules for suspense.

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1936, 76 minutes)
Netflix: Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is vacationing in England when he gets caught in a web of mystery in this Hitchcock thriller. Shots ring out at a show, and a terrified woman (Lucie Mannheim) begs Hannay to help her. He's certain she's crazy -- until she appears at his flat with a map in hand and a knife in her back, muttering something about 39 steps. Eluding the police, Hannay travels through Scotland to unearth the truth. Netflix link.

The 39 Steps came in fourth place in the British Film Institute's 1999 poll of top 100 British films (topped only by Lawrence of Arabia, Great Expectations, and at number one, The Third Man.  This is one of several Hitchcock classics with the theme of the innocent man on the run from the police, needing to clear his name (later exemplified in films like North by Northwest).  This is the first of four film adaptations of the book The 39 Steps, and Netflix is also streaming the 1959 version directed by Ralph Thomas.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, UK, 1938, 96 minutes)
Netflix: Traveling aboard a transcontinental train, young Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) becomes alarmed when an acquaintance, elderly governess Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty), suddenly vanishes. Inexplicably, all the other passengers deny having seen the woman. So Iris turns to her lone ally -- handsome music scholar Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave) -- for help. As the two search for clues to Froy's disappearance, they uncloak a sinister plot. Netflix link.

In addition to being a neat little suspense thriller, this film is also notable for featuring the first appearance of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as bumbling and bemused friends who want to get home in time for the cricket match.  These minor characters, sometimes referred to as Caldicott and Charters, were so popular that they appeared in several other English films in the 1940s, including Dead of Night (1945), Quartet (1949) and Passport to Pimlico (1949).  Netflix is also streaming the much maligned 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes starring Cybil Shephard and Elliot Gould. (I don't know, I liked the remake when I saw it as a kid, but most people seem to hate Shephard's performance in particular.)

I look forward to your responses and feedback in the comments section.  --JLK

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