The Guardian (04/Jul/2012) - The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock at the BFI: 10 of his lesser-known gems
(c) Pamela Hutchinson and Tony Paley in The Guardian (04/Jul/2012)
- keywords: "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, Alfred Hitchcock, Anny Ondra, Bill Krohn, Blackmail (1929), British Film Institute, Carl Brisson, Charles Laughton, David O. Selznick, Dial M for Murder (1954), Eden Phillpotts, Famous Players-Lasky, François Truffaut, Gainsborough Pictures, Grace Kelly, Gregory Peck, Ian Christie, Ian Hunter, Islington Studios, London, Ivor Novello, Jameson Thomas, Joan Barry, Joseph Conrad, Leytonstone, London, Lifeboat (1944), Lillian Hall-Davis, Malcolm Keen, North by Northwest (1959), Polperro, Cornwall, Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Rope (1948), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), The 39 Steps (1935), The Birds (1963), The Farmer's Wife (1928), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Manxman (1929), The Paradine Case (1947), The Ring (1927), Torn Curtain (1966), Vertigo (1958), Young and Innocent (1937)
The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock at the BFI: 10 of his lesser-known gems
Everyone knows the classic Hitchcocks: Psycho, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes. But the summer-long retrospective also includes wonderful films you may not have heard much about; here's 10 often-overlooked Hitchcocks you won't want to miss
Born in Leytonstone, east London, but destined to be the toast of Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock learned the business of film-making in London, not LA. The business at that time was silent cinema, and the young Hitchcock had a full apprenticeship.
He spent years at Gainsborough Pictures in Islington, north London (or Famous Players-Lasky as it was when he arrived) crafting caption cards, editing scripts and designing sets before he was given the chance to direct his own films. His early features are far more accomplished, and more personal, than many a director's debut. And if you're familiar with his famous sound movies, you'll find much in them that prefigures his most celebrated suspense-filled sequences.
The British Film Institute in London has prepared a full Hitchcock retrospective for the summer of 2012, with full restorations of the director's lesser-known features at the heart of the festivities. So, here are 10 usually-overlooked Hitchcock films – five silent, five sound – you won't want to miss.
The Lodger is one of the director's earliest efforts, but it's distinctly, horribly Hitchcockian. In this twisted thriller, handsome Ivor Novello plays a mysterious stranger whose late-night comings and goings seem to coincide with a string of violent murders. Could he be the "Avenger", who preys on blondes in dimly lit backstreets? His landlady thinks so, and you will too.
As the landlady's fears gather momentum, her fair-haired daughter begins to fall for the lodger, while her boyfriend, a policeman supposedly on the killer's trail, hangs around making ghoulish remarks: "I'm keen on golden hair myself, same as The Avenger is."
The cloud of suspicion and guilt that surrounds everyone makes this a queasy, unsettling film – and essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan. There's visual flair here, not least in the elaborately designed captions, and a disconcerting ending that will make you question almost everything that went before.
The Ring (1927)
Set in the east end of London that Hitchcock knew so well, this silent drama plays out in the sleazy business of boxing, made sleazier by infidelity, ambition and rivalry.
The Ring is a showcase for the young Hitchcock's editing panache: the experimental, Soviet-influenced montage that would surface so violently in Psycho. The title refers to the boxing arena, a wedding band and a bracelet that heavyweight champion Bob (Ian Hunter) gives to the fiancée (Hitchcock favourite Lilian Hall-Davis) of young hopeful Jack (Carl Brisson).
The theme continues and multiplies: Jack is even nicknamed "One Round". The fight sequences are giddily exciting, and the two contrasting party scenes are not to be missed.
The Farmer's Wife (1927)
In this adaptation of a popular play by Eden Phillpotts, Hitchcock gives a knockabout rural comedy some painfully sharp edges. The usually suave Jameson Thomas dons outsize sideburns to play Samuel Sweetland, a gruff, widowed, well-to-do farmer. Having finally decided to remarry, Sweetland draws up a list of "possibles" from among the village women with the help of his winsome housekeeper (Lilian Hall-Davis). What follows is a series of hilariously ungallant proposals, with the comedy of embarrassment leavened by slapstick.
Many people say Hitchcock didn't understand women; here he at least nails a portrayal of a man for whom they are an unknown, terrifying species. The film is an unexpected guilty treat, like eating pudding for breakfast. It's not what we expect from Hitch, although François Truffaut did say it was shot "like a thriller". The upshot is that the director's brutally economical style whisks the plot ahead before the gags outstay their welcome.
The Manxman (1929)
Another love triangle, similar in some ways to The Ring, but with a picturesque coastal setting: Polperro, Cornwall, standing in for the Isle of Man. Fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen) are upstanding chaps and firm friends, but then Pete goes to sea and asks his pal to look after his girl Kate (Anny Ondra) while he's away ... Sure, the plot is melodramatic and with little excitement of the violent and sinister sort we expect from Hitchcock, but this is a fine film.
Hitchcock teases the audience, and torments his characters, with a game of hide-and-seek. Someone always knows something that someone else doesn't: occasionally it's the audience who is in the dark. The clandestine affair here becomes the bomb under the table from Hitchcock's famous definition of suspense. The question is: when it will be discovered and how much damage will it do?
So good you'll watch it twice. Blackmail was Britain's first full-length "talkie", but Hitchcock shot a complete version as a silent too. Watch both and you'll see the height of Hitchcock's mastery of silent cinema, and a precocious confidence with sound design, typified by the famous "knife" sequence.
Anny Ondra is Alice, a young woman who one night defends herself against an attacker with, yes, a very large and lethal knife, and is subsequently targeted by a shifty blackmailer. Just like the landlady's daughter in The Lodger, Alice is stepping out with a copper, which only complicates matters, and increases her feelings of misplaced guilt.
Alice, who works in her parents' shop in west London, is rather plummily voiced by Joan Barry in the sound version (Ondra was Czech) and Blackmail was lumbered with possibly the worst tagline for a thriller ever: "Our mother tongue as it should be spoken." But, elocution aside, both versions of Blackmail are eloquent cinema. That knife sequence, for example, is just as chilling without sound: watch the shadow of Alice's hand hover over that gleaming blade.
Darker in tone and more harrowing than its reputation allows, Sabotage is arguably the most underrated of Hitchcock's still undervalued British period. A loose adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent about a shadowy network of anarchists, the film deserves to be remembered for much more than Hitchcock famously regretting his decision to let the bomb go off at the end of one of the director's most celebrated and manipulative suspense sequences.
The movie's central couple run a cinema, which Hitchcock uses to masterful effect in an intriguing and rich sequence contrasting Walt Disney on the screen with the heartbreak of the wife following the tragedy at the centre of the narrative. The scene involving the "murder" (or is it "willed suicide"?) of her husband foreshadows the most brutal and shocking killing in Hitchcock's canon 30 years later, that of the East German agent Gromek in Torn Curtain (1966). Tony Paley
Young and Innocent (1937)
The attention devoted to The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) has ensured that Young and Innocent has remained the poor relation of Hitchcock's three 1930s comedy thrillers – but it's not hard to see why this hugely enjoyable film was reportedly Hitchcock's personal favourite among his 23 British movies. The class elements, so central to his best British films, abound in a double-chase story, involving an innocent man wrongly accused of strangling a famous actress and his involvement with the alluring daughter of the chief constable charged with recapturing him.
There are plot points and directorial flourishes here that would resurface in his more mature masterpieces The Birds (1963) and North By Northwest (1959) while the birthday party sequence introduces us to Aunt Margaret, one of Hitchcock's formidable matriarchs. It's worth the price of admission alone to see on the big screen the most famous single piece of camerawork of Hitchcock's British output, the marvellous travelling crane shot which takes the audience the full length of a hotel ballroom and into the eyes of the man the protagonists are desperately searching for.
Hitchcock's most celebrated cinematic experiment was his dazzling use of the continuous take in Rope (1948), to present the film as if it was happening in real time. Rope also revelled in its restricted setting – something tried out again in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window; but his first audacious use of that method of shooting was in Lifeboat.
All 96 minutes of action take place in a lifeboat containing eight survivors of a ship carrying American and British passengers and the captain of a German U-boat following the sinking of both vessels during a battle in the second world war. Press reaction was hostile after Hitchcock, far from producing a piece of propaganda, delivered a complex drama as tense dramatically as it was brilliant technically in which the characters, and by implication the audience, are made to face up to what is required to win a war.
The captain, as in so many of the director's films, is no stock villain but revealed to be the best equipped of any on the boat for survival and the circumstances of the two murders that ensue are in turns, shocking, and brutal. The film ends with a character pointing at the enemy and asking, "What are you going to do with people like that?" Hitchcock's achievement in the previous hour and a half is to make it clear that there are no easy answers.
The Paradine Case (1947)
Hitchcock's rough-cut of The Paradine Case, with which producer David Selznick tinkered extensively in post-production, was lost in a flood in the 1980s. That's a shame as its restoration would surely have revived interest in a film now almost wholly neglected but which has at its core themes the director was to return to with such devastating effect in Vertigo. In no other Hitchcock film, bar that 1958 masterpiece, is the central male character so undermined as he is here, with Gregory Peck as a barrister who ends up destroying the object of his obsession, the woman he is supposed to be defending on a charge of murder. Peck's wife's plea to him to win the case, despite her knowledge of his love for her rival, and her protestation that "if she dies you are lost to me forever" undercuts the notional happy ending here in a film darkened even moreby Charles Laughton's scene-stealing role as the grotesque judge, Lord Horfield.
Dial M For Murder 3D (1954)
Though Dial M for Murder is now given cursory attention by film scholars and critics, the screenings of the movie at the BFI Hitchcock retrospective could well be the hottest ticket on the London repertory film circuit this summer. Memories of the version film seen by the vast majority of audiences, whether at the cinema or on television, will be swept away after the chance to see it afresh in 3D.
Film historian Ian Christie says the 3D presentation is the highlight of the season: "Hitchcock was always looking for ways to implicate the audience in the drama of a scene and 3D offered him a way of bringing the audience into the room with Grace Kelly." Hitchcock uses 3D effects sparingly in a film almost wholly shot in one room, but the gripping scene in which Kelly's character is attacked and strangled is a legendarily stunning use of the format. Bill Krohn, in his book Hitchcock at Work, said that in 1954 the studio "decided to give theatres the option of playing the film 'flat', and most of them did but [Dial M for Murder] should really be seen 'in depth'".