Saturday, January 23, 2016

Hitch’s British Thrillers: In Order of Quality

Before he went to Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock made his name with a series of thrillers which allowed him to develop the techniques, conventions and themes that would continue to inform his work for the rest of his career.  

6) Sabotage (1936)

One of the darkest movies Hitchcock ever made, and probably, aside from Frenzy, his most cynical. Based on Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent, it is the story of Verloc (Oskar Homolka), a theatre owner and his wife (Sylvia Sidney). Verloc is under suspicion as a foreign agent -- his theatre never shows a profit, yet he is still able to live a fairly comfortable life. Masquerading as a nearby greengrocer, Ted Spencer (John Loder), a British police man, tries to convince Mrs. Verloc that her husband is not who he seems... 

Though the story was softened considerably from the original source material, it is still grim stuff. The movie's reputation hinges on its penultimate sequence -- with the police watching his every move, Verloc convinces his wife's younger brother Steve (Desmond Tester) to take a package (containing a bomb) into the city. This final set piece is nerve-shredding, as Steve dawdles and gets delayed or distracted by various people and events. You wait in hope that some kind of reprieve is on the way, but no. In this case, Hitch does not let the viewer off the hook. 

Performances from the cast are solid all around, but while the final set piece is fantastic, the film leading up to it lacks drive. Outside of the bomb sequence, there is little to grip onto emotionally. An interesting picture that does not quite work as well as it should, but still worth a look.

5) Secret Agent (1936)

Secret Agent is filled with strong individual performances and some terrific set pieces, but the movie is let down considerably by a surprisingly dour central performance from John Gielgud. Gielgud did not become involved in cinema until his 60s, and this film certainly highlights his inexperience in front of the camera. Even future TV fixture Robert Young as the token American outshines Gielgud. Peter Lorre steals the movie as the insane 'General',  Gielgud's fellow agent who spends all his time literally chasing any woman that takes his fancy. Madeline Carroll makes a welcome return after her performance in The 39 Steps. She is her usual sparky self, but the chemistry with Gielgud is almost non-existent. The movie is not exactly bad, but the void of its leading man is too crippling to make it consistently enjoyable. 

4) Young and Innocent (US Title: The Girl Was Young, 1937)

A personal favourite, this one. Considerably lighter than the other films he made during this era, it is more of a romp than his spy thrillers. If it is remembered at all, Young and Innocent is famous for an extended long take from one end of a ballroom to an extreme close up of the real killer's twitching eyes. The story is a simple variation on the 'man on the run' scenario: a young man attempts to clear his name of murder, and becomes involved with the daughter of the police inspector on his tail. 

More of a romance than a thriller, Young and Innocent benefits from an appealing pair of lovers in Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney, and some deft comic touches from Hitch to leaven the suspense of De Marney's plight. Good teatime viewing.

3) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The beginning of Hitch’s ascent to the big time. The Lodger and Blackmail had given him some heat, but after The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitch found his groove in a series of thrillers that would lead to his Hollywood classics. Of the capable cast, Peter Lorre is the stand out as the scarred villain. He lays down the blue print for Hitch's sophisticated heavies -- from Claude Rains in Notorious through Ray Milland in Dial M For Murder and culminating James Mason's suave spymaster in North by Northwest. Filled with iconic set pieces -- the church meeting; the opera sequence; the final shootout with police -- The Man Who Knew Too Much is terrific entertainment. Clearly, Hitch knew he was on to a good thing -- it's the only film of his own that he remade.

2) The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Honestly, this one is interchangeable with Number One, it’s that good. Set on a train filled with a collection of eccentric and sinister passengers, The Lady Vanishes is basically a locked room mystery. It is also one of the best comic thrillers Hitch ever made, standing toe-to-toe with his more famous films. 

Leading lady Margaret Lockwood is more famous for the series of conniving villainesses she played in the Gainsborough melodramas of the 40s (such as The Wicked Lady), and adds a good dose of brass to her role as an over-aged debutante. Michael Redgrave is a terrific romantic foil, and his banter with Lockwood is delightful. 

The story is filled with twists and sudden reversals, and the various comic subplots of the other passengers provide a vivid and exciting backdrop to the main action. One of the most fun of all of Hitch's movies, and well worth a look.

1) The 39 Steps (1935)

I thought long and hard about this one, but honestly this is the only film that feels like it fits comfortably in the top slot. Hitch's first real attempt at the 'man on the run' plot he'd dust off for films like Saboteur and his masterpiece North by Northwest, The 39 Steps remains one of his great films and the pinnacle of his British period. 

John Hannay, a Canadian currently residing in London, finds himself wrongly accused of murder and end sup on the run through the Scottish Highlands. Pursued by police, he also has to contend with the  sinister organisation behind his misfortune. With the reluctant aid of Pamela (Madeline Carroll), a woman who finds herself literally chained to the fugitive, Hannay tries to uncover the secret of the '39 Steps'...

Everything about this movie works. Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll are a terrific screen couple, the plot is a string of increasingly exciting set pieces and the whole thing is leavened by a strong dose of English wit (the scene where Hannay delays capture by hijacking a political rally is laugh-out-loud funny).

Ripped off by everyone from The Fugitive to James Bond, The 39 Steps  remains a timeless piece of entertainment. 

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