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Film Comment (1993) - Foreign correspondence: The rediscovered war films of Alfred Hitchcock




The war movies of director Alfred Hitchcock have recently gained recognition and acclaim. "Bon Voyage" and "Aventure Malgache" are discussed.


Foreign correspondence: The rediscovered war films of Alfred Hitchcock

Until now the titles Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache have held meaning only to knowledgeable Hitchcock enthusiasts, for whom the names evoke a frustration that has lingered ever since François Truffaut raised them during his book-length interview with the director, published in 1967. Finally, half a century after they were produced, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache are reaching our screens as part of a touring Hitchcock series, made possible by the British Film Institute, under the sponsorship of Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. The films will be given a regular theatrical and homevideo release this fall by Milestone Film & Video.

At running times of 26 and 31 minutes, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache invite comparison to Hitchcock's television work, which would begin eleven years later. But where the network series served as a sort of sketchbook for clever but ultimately disposable ideas, the two rediscovered works are much more substantial--in thematic design, historical context, and directorial technique. These featurettes should not be viewed as tangential footnotes to a great director's career, of interest only to completists and the idly curious, but as a vital link in the chain of Hitchcock's artistic/political development. Skillfully crafted and engaging, they present the filmmaker's talent in its prime (flanked by Shadow of a Doubt and Lifeboat on one side, Spellbound and Notorious on the other), with intricately layered plots that generate, at times, a cynical tone of noirish intensity. With every subsequent viewing, each film yields some previously unnoticed component woven into the fabric of the story.

One reason for the films' obscurity is that they were made not for an American studio but on behalf of the British Ministry of Information (MoI), as part of the wartime propaganda effort. Since the United States' entry into the war, the head of the MoI's film division, Sidney Bernstein, had been discussing an arrangement with the major studios whereby war-related shorts would be circulated with their theatrical releases. From the start, Bernstein was concerned that the British product might not play well to American audiences; he stated, "Our imperative need is for films to suit their tastes, films which will command equal attention with the best American films."

His apprehensions were verified when his old friend, producer David O. Selznick, screened Next of Kin, one of the MoI's proudest works. Speaking on behalf of himself, director Ernst Lubitsch, and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, Selznick fired off one of his legendary memos in the form of a five-page telegram, explaining in no uncertain terms why the short was entirely unsuitable for exhibition. Screening it, he wrote, "would be [a] dreadful error from the standpoint [of] British American relations....All here believe [the] film could be more profitably run in Germany for home consumption and for building German morale."

Bernstein took Selznick's detailed criticisms to heart and decided to recruit a filmmaker whose work could appeal to the tastes of American audiences. Immediately, Alfred Hitchcock came to mind.

It had been known for some time that Hitchcock was willing to make a propaganda film for Great Britain, especially since, in ...

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Bret Wood is the author of Tod Browning, Diabolist of the Cinema.