An Early Hitchcock Round Up!
By Kristin Battestella
Let's spend a stormy day nestled in with these early mysteries, spies, and thrillers from Mr. Suspense himself Alfred Hitchcock!
Murder! – The 1930 print is jumpy and sometimes tough to see, but the Beethoven overture adds to the eponymous screams in the night as a ridiculous amount of people talk over each other or point fingers while hysterical others pollute the crime scene. Town gossip on which actress didn't like the other adds to the messy as households high and low unite in shock or up turned noses. We get the facts second hand – a fireplace poker, bloody dresses, a brandy flask – and opinions on the case are mixed with common domestic scenery, wry British humor, and no Code wit. A man can't talk about the neighborhood crime until he puts his teeth in his mouth, and folks rush to dress as police knock, winking at the regular people in extreme circumstances and ordinary places with the scandalous behind closed doors. The back and forth kitchen settings create a stage-like design as prop doors, police questionings backstage, pantomime theatre, and cross dressing innuendo match the pomp and circumstance trials, wigs, and robes. The fanfare moves fast as jurors deliberate on our lady killer's well bred family, possible fugue state, or if hanging her is too barbarous. We don't know who the jury members are but can deduce much by their opinions – the pipe smoking alpha male, maternal older ladies, the cowering man fearful of prison, a sophisticated psychology woman, and the dirty old man who thinks a good looking actress should get a free pass. A woman's place in the home serving her man and men versus women aspects feel old fashioned, and there are still silent holdovers with onscreen cursive notes amid the low production values. The obligatory transition and exposition scenes feel roundabout and overlong, lagging with foolish old ladies and crying kids. Some twists are also obvious – regular folks have absurd access to evidence and the whole town has clues yet the police somehow dropped the ball. However, there are progressive undertones, too, with well edited jury room interplay as devil or angel on the shoulder camera cuts and layered voiceovers close in with intense zooms pressuring the lone holdout. The dames are decked out in serious hats, furs, and pearls for jury duty while men look in the mirror over their guilt or doubts with Wagner on the radio becoming a preliminary score. The case should be open and shut, but the court of public opinion lingers and arm chair investigators proceed on the whodunit to prove one's innocence. Such surprisingly modern spins and a fitting circus topper make this an interesting little study with pieces of Hitchcock to come and caper within a caper analysis.
Secret Agent – Madeleine Carroll (The Prisoner of Zenda), Peter Lorre (M), John Gielgud (Arthur), and Robert Young (Father Knows Best) star in this 1936 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's tales alongside Great War funerals, one armed soldiers, empty coffins, and a whiff of German Expressionism. Assumed names, false passports, and ominous figures in the doorway create an intimate one man mission amid distant bombs, nearing explosions, fake headlines, and big wartime scale. Hotel meetings, double agents, secret codes inside the chocolate wrapper – it's almost Bond before their was Bond with an opening twist and a debriefing from a man named “R” leading to glum church organs, candlelight signals, mysterious strangulations, flirtatious suitors, and button clues. Our charming novelist cum spy travels to exotic continental casinos with a thrill seeking doll in the bath and a whimsy to their marital farce. When she slaps him, he slaps her back! However, some of the prerequisite over the top humor for Lorre's Hairless Mexican General who's chasing “not only ladies” is unnecessary. His repeated long name and subtle sardonic are much better – he exasperates, “I have anxiety,” and when asked “Do you know any prayers?” he answers, “Don't insult me.” His killer hand should not be underestimated, but the touchy sidekick banter borders on bickering couple, and there's a ménage feeling with our spy trio when up close men whisper how they will be alone without the lady for hours. The women, by the way, are suave thirties glamorous even though it's 1916. Fortunately, the intense factories, train confrontations, and telegram intertitles with their translated codes remain unique. Telescope shots, howling dogs, and mountain photography add suspense with very little, as do later Hitchcock touches such as staircase motifs, reluctant heroes, fatal mistaken identities, and the wronged man on the run. One can tell Sir Alfred has outgrown some of the lower production values and is ready to move on to bigger Hollywood fare, but this precursor formula moves smoothly without underestimating the viewer. Who is the rival agent we're seeking? Have we met him already? Suspicions on who speaks German and understands it or not escalate into a tense finale despite mild obviousness and a slightly abrupt end. I'd almost like to see this redone with a proper budget – not a ridiculous spectacle, just a polished potboiler – but this fun cast and fine story are neat for anyone who likes to compare Hitchcock notes and spy thrillers. And wow, look at those telephone operators!
The 39 Steps – Like Maugham's Ashenden stories, I wish there were more adaptations of the other Hannay books by John Buchan, not just numerous remakes stemming from this unfaithful but no less landmark 1935 picture with Robert Donat (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) joining our original icy blonde Carroll and all the Hitchcockian one can muster including the mistaken man, foreign intrigue, macguffin secrets, and budding romance. Cheeky dance halls host marriage jokes, brawls, chases, and gunshots with shadowed men in trench coats, pipes, and fedoras. Double decker buses, netted pillbox hats, stoles, and more period touches such as newspapers, lanterns, and milkmen contrast mysterious maps of Scotland, missing fingers, knives in the back, and a gal whose name depends on where she is and which country is the highest bidder. The mercenary espionage, air defense hush hush, and ticking clock is upfront in telling us what we need to know whilst also revealing a whole lot of eponymous nothing. Danger tops each scene thanks to suspicious phone booths, perilous bridges, and jealous husbands spotting those knowing glances across the dinner table during Grace. Police at the door and women both helpful or harmful compromise potentially rural calm – news travels fast and a spy must always be on the lookout. Whom do you trust when no one is who they seem? Lucky hymnal twists and false arrest turns escalate from one location to the next with ironic parades, impromptu speeches, cheering crowds, and charismatic escapes despite handcuffs, sheep, and romantic comedy tropes. Filming through doors, windows, and Art Deco lines accent the men in disguise, overheard rendezvous, and small hiking silhouettes against the pretty mountain peaks. Trains, airplanes, and rapid waters add speed to the pursuit. The superb cabin car photography and railroad scenery don't need the in your face action awesome of today, for chitchatting folks reading the daily news is tense enough for the man who's picture is beside the headlines. While some may find the look here rough around the edges or the plot points clichéd, many of our cinematic caper staples originate here. The full circle music, memories, and shootouts wink at the facade of it all, remaining impressive film making for the early sound era with great spy fun and adventure.
Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense – This documentary looks old with dated graphics, sliding photo frames, and low quality movie clips. The dry narration takes time to get rolling with Hitchcock's early childhood, first studio work, and small art direction credits, yet the voiceover also often moves at double speed amid talk of The Lodger and Hitch hallmarks such as the innocent man on the run, macguffins, cameo appearances, and trick shot filming. Brief mentions on family life pepper the transition to talkies, and this spends a surprising amount of time – maybe too much time – on Hitchcock's lesser known pictures including Blackmail, The Skin Game, and Number 17 before detailing the 1934 The Man Who Knew to Much, The 39 Steps, and the controversial Sabotage. Strangely, the forties successes also skip around with The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Suspicion, or Cary Grant and Grace Kelly stardom between Lifeboat facts, studio freedom with Spellbound and Notorious, and the technical achievements of Rope. Likewise, the fifties are unevenly packed with Warner Bros and Paramount moves, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Hitchcock's drool television heights. By time we get to the Vertigo innuendo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds, this overlong hour and forty minutes plus is practically over with little time for Marnie or any other reflection thanks to filler from Hitchcock's lengthy film trailer tours and random hosting moments from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The narration never gives way to any other talking heads, only quoting “Hitchcock said” and other sources for a somewhat boring, amateur, one-sided book report mood. Rather than serious film study, this poorly paced generalizing of Hitchcock's techniques ironically makes it seem like he did nothing but make the same movie over and over again. Some out of place mentions are insignificant, other sentences are spoken too quickly while other topics linger too long and give away spectacular cinema moments. For hardcore fans, this will be nothing more than a chronological clip show, however such simplicity can be a good starting point for audiences new to Hitchcock – so long as you've seen the movies spoiled here.