Saturday, 21 November 2015

British Hitchcock In The Criterion Collection


(Note: this post on is playing up a bit so I could not upload any pictures unfortunately - shame as I had some great ones from these movies!)

Alfred Hitchcock directed a total of 55 feature films – 23 were produced in Britain between 1927 and 1939. This is an average of 2 films per year which is an impressive apprenticeship! He was between the ages of 28 – 40 during this period – arguably the formative years in his professional life.

I really enjoy and respect Hitchcock as a director and film-maker. I have seen about 20 of his films. When I was first becoming interested in cinema in my teenage years Vertigo had perhaps the strongest impact of any film on me – over the years if pressed to name my favourite film I said Vertigo. I watched it again in late 2013 after a gap of at least 10 years since my last viewing and I concluded that it remains my favourite film experience- I think Bernard Herrman’s score is one of the major reasons together with Kim Novak!

Hitchcock was a complex person. As a young boy he is generally described as being solitary, plump (in his teenage years he put on considerable weight) and inquisitive. As he entered his teenage years random incidences showed him to be rebellious and even slightly sadistic. Hitchcock had a “gruesome fascination” (Donald Spoto) with crime, vice and the macabre. Judging from his statements and particularly from his films, this fascination remained with him his whole life.

Hitchcock’s first boss described him as “a natural humorist and clown” who “had a sparkling wit”. When Henleys Cable Company invited their employees to make contributions to their in-house publication, Alfred Hitchcock enthusiastically produced several pieces. 

In his first contribution in 1919 entitled “Gas”, a woman is pursued, terrorised, caught, tortured and left to die when suddenly ...........“POP!!!” ..........“it’s out Madame” the dentist said, “half a crown please!”. The reader then realises that it was the hallucinatory musings of a patient anaesthetised in the dentist’s chair while having a tooth removed!  Here we see the preoccupation with terror, suspense, black comedy and audience relief that characterise The Master of Suspense.

His sense of humour also had a tinge of sadism. His tricks and jokes were often at the expense of others and often were totally distasteful and odd – the fact that many continued through his adult life was somewhat disturbing.

In 1920 Hitchcock began working in his spare time for the newly formed Players Lasky Studio at Islington in London. When Michael Balcon (together with his friend Victor Saville) took over Islington Studios in 1922 Alfred Hitchcock approached the men offering his services and by 1924 when Islington Studios became Gainsborough Pictures Hitchcock’s talent and enthusiasm had been noted, particularly by Balcon.

I am full of admiration for Hitchcock’s determination to get involved in movie making. He was extremely pro-active, versatile, willing to work hard and persistent despite considerable opposition – put this together with his extraordinary talent and you have the genius that would become Alfred Hitchcock.

A co-production  agreement in 1924 meant that a Gainsborough film was to be shot in the famous German UFA studios. Alfred Hitchcock was brought along as assistant director to British director Graham Cutts. UFA was the greatest film studio on earth at this moment – the German film-makers like Lang, Lubitsch  and Murnau were expanding the possibilities of cinema at every level. Hitchcock found real inspiration at last – like a sponge he soaked up every detail. 

Balcon recognised the passion and talent of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock showed himself to be innovative in every department – script, direction, camerawork, title cards, editing etc.

In 1925 Hitchcock directed his 2 first feature films – The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle. Hitchcock had integrated the European techniques and styles that he had seen at the UFA studios and through watching imported films. 

The distributor C.M Wolf refused to handle the films – he was intensely conservative and rejected the European sensibilities of Hitchcock’s first films. The films were shelved – a considerable financial blow for Gainsborough Studios.

Michael Balcon was by now a fervent believer in Hitchcock as a film-maker. He offered moral support to Hitchcock and urged him to focus on beginning a new project.

The Lodger (1927) appealed to Hitchcock greatly and the film is considered to be his first great film! Again C.M Wolf refused to distribute the film. Balcon believed in the film and fought hard and eventually garnered support for the film and thus forced Wolf to release the film. 

The film was an enormous success and prompted the release of The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle. Hitchcock was lauded as the greatest British director. 

After two more films for Gainsborough he signed a very lucrative contract with British International Pictures. It became clear that if Hitchcock was enthused by a project the resulting film would be a success. However if the subject did not interest Hitchcock he was cynical and even unprofessional during production. 

His sense of self importance grew – he formed a company to further the promotion and status of Alfred Hitchcock. British International Pictures grew wary of his auterist statements and of his seeming inability to satisfactorily direct projects that did not interest him. Of the 10 films Hitchcock made for British International Pictures only 2 films (The Ring, Blackmail) are deemed to be of a high standard. The producers were dismayed about the director’s attitude and his contract was not renewed. 

Hitchcock assumed that other producers would be very eager to engage him but offers did not come in and Hitchcock became very anxious. By the time Hitchcock was engaged by producer Tom Arnold to produce the musical Waltzes From Vienna in 1933 Hitchcock was at a low point. He showed no enthusiasm for the project and his behaviour on set was irresponsible and rude.

The Hollywood studio system was often regarded as an ideal apprenticeship as contractors would work on a variety of genres and budgets. Directors like Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks showed themselves to be adept at producing films in most genres – comedies, dramas, westerns, action films etc.

Hitchcock was different – from very early on he made it clear that he wanted to make “Hitchcock” pictures – dramas of suspense and action. Michael Balcon realised this and he believed in the commercial potential of the “Hitchcock Picture”. In 1933 Balcon saw the opportunity to rekindle their working relationship. Once again Balcon was Hitchcock’s saviour.

Balcon engaged Hitchcock to work for the recently formed British-Gaumont Pictures – the fruits of this include the three British Hitchcock films in the Criterion Collection.  

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) The Lady Vanishes (1938)

These three British Hitchcock films hold a very special place in my heart. I am Irish and I grew up with English television – so I have a great affection and familiarity with British culture. There are few quintessentially “British” films from the classic era so I value these highly.  

I feel that they are Hitchcock writing in the vernacular - so to speak. Hitchcock was a cockney – a working class East Londoner. When Hitchcock moved to America he made a particular effort to mask this London accent but it still came through when he spoke. Cockneys do not take things too seriously - they deflate pomposity and ego. Their humour is self-effacing.

I find these films to be uniquely playful and innocent amongst Hitchcock’s body of work – I would almost use the word wholesome. I could watch these films at anytime – day or night. A Hitchcock film means drama and suspense – in these British films I feel like I am dipping my toe in the water but never submerging myself.  

The humour sets the tone of these films. At the outset of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) we are on the slopes of St. Moritz watching the dynamics of the Lawrence family unfold in an atmosphere which is like a British take on a screwball comedy. I love the characters of Bob and Jill Lawrence (such memorable acting from Leslie Banks and Edna Best). The death of Louis Bernard is a superb scene – the wonderful production design of the ballroom, the witty playacting of Jill and Louis, the hilarious knitting thread which enmeshes the dance floor. Louis is shot by a rifle gunsman through the glass – as he dies he seems more concerned with maintaining his dignified air than by the bullet which has just entered his body! It is a delight to watch – rarely has a death seemed so light and devoid of tragedy! 

There are so many funny scenes in this movie – the one in the dentist’s office is particularly hilarious!

In The 39 Steps (1935) we open in a London music hall. The scene is brilliant! The terrific heckling of the audience – the wonderful cockney British humour! When the gun is fired we are thrilled not threatened! 

Robert Donat is brilliantly cast in the lead role. His interplay with Madeleine Carroll is a real delight to watch and very funny. Donat brilliantly delivers the “speech” to the assembled group at a rally in Scotland. On the train the two gentlemen passengers are a wonderfully funny duo that anticipated the later duo of Caldicott and Charters. 

The opening section of The Lady Vanishes is unique in Hitchcock’s career. The first 23 minutes of this film is like a comedic theatre piece. I love this section! We are here for the enjoyment of the humour and not for establishing the plot. All this scene does is to demonstrate the brilliant comedic writing of the script (unusually Hitchcock had little to do with the screenplay) and make the characters that appear in the film more fleshed out. The duo of Caldicott and Charters are brilliant! - an effortless blend of parody, wit and physical comedy! We get the wonderful intrigue that surrounds the secret couple of Mr and “Mrs” Todhunter. We get wonderful scenes with Iris Henderson, Miss Froy and Gilbert. 

We are in suspense in these three films as we seek to resolve the mystery of the story but we don’t feel the characters are in any real jeopardy. This gives a kind of innocence and cartoonish quality to the films. 

The three villains in these three films are wonderful variations on the Hitchcock type. 

In The Man who Knew Too Much Peter Lorre gives us a villain who may have been equalled but was never surpassed in Hitchcock’s films. He simply oozes charisma and is fascinating to look at – it really is hard to believe that he was reading his lines phonetically! His obvious East European origins would have added so much intrigue to the film in 1935. Nowadays with the internet and globalisation there is less mystery about foreign places and cultures.   

When they were re-united in 1936 for Secret Agent, Peter Lorre was dependent on morphine and unable to deliver a coherent performance. Hitchcock said about it – “I bought him in the shop, put him on the floor, wound him up and he doesn’t go!”

In The 39 Steps Godfrey Tearle (as Professor Jordan) is terrific. Here we have the sanguine villain – the respected member of his community: a polite and hospitable man with a warm and engaging family. His little finger is missing the upper part – such a wonderful detail. 

In The Lady Vanishes we have once again a foreign villain – Dr. Hartz from Prague. Again we can imagine that in 1938 this would have added an exotic and mysterious element for contemporary audiences. He is dignified and handsome. Hitchcock brilliantly left me guessing for some time as to his motivation. 

The leads in these films are so uniquely British and such a pleasing alternative to Hollywood leads of the time. They establish the theme of the everyday man, woman or couple who gets bound up in a thrilling adventure by accident. This is likely to be a daydream fantasy of Hitchcock – when he was honeymooning in St. Moritz in 1926 with his newlywed wife his imagination set the seed for The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

A special mention needs to be made in regard to the female leads in these films. 

Edna Best is terrific as Jill Lawrence. She has so much spunk! It is a delicious twist when she exacts her revenge on Ramon at the conclusion of the film.  

Madeleine Carroll – much is made of the fact that she is the first real example of the Hitchcock blonde but I feel this is an exaggeration. Concerning her role Hitchcock instructed her “For God’s sake just be yourself!". This is very different to the Vera Miles, Kim Novak, Eva Saint Marie and Tippi Hedren blonde which Hitchcock saught to mould and control down to the smallest detail. 

Madeleine Carroll’s character comes across as fresh and vibrant. A strong woman who does not become weak at the knees when embraced by the dashing Robert Donat! Watching her hard exterior slowly melt through the film is a delight. I find their relationship to be extremely romantic and even cute! For me no other Hitchcock film that I have seen is so sincerely romantic – in Notorious and Vertigo there is too much darkness and obsessiveness to call them romantic! 

Margaret Lockwood is also a wonderful character. Is she the only female hero in a Hitchcock spy thriller? The opening section of the film lets us get to know her better. She gives such a natural and nuanced performance. I like that Hitchcock does not film her in the style of Hollywood soft focus close-ups etc.

None of Hitchcock’s later films that I have seen (I own Foreign Correspondent but have not seen it yet!) ever regained the sense of fun and innocence of these British films. I rewatch them more than any other Hitchcock films that I own. 

While his later Hollywood films (1940-1960) are considered his greatest works I find these 3 British films to be as good in their own right. By the time that we get to The Birds, Marnie etc. I have checked out - his dark viewpoint on women makes me profoundly uncomfortable and I have never wanted to explore further. 

As I mentioned above I consider these to be wholesome – I could not say that about any other of his films that I have seen. Wholesome classic Hitchcock means unbeatable and endlessly rewatchable fun entertainment! 

To summarise I love these films for amongst other things : their British humour and cockney slang; the wonderful performances of Leslie Banks, Robert Donat and Michael Redgrave; for the charming villains; for the rollercoaster plot that thrills us but never scares us!; for the fun female leads (Edna Best, Madeleine Carroll, Margaret Lockwood) who are such strong characters; for wonderful set pieces; for a myriad of colourful secondary characters; in essence - for their Britishness! 

A note on the Criterion Blurays – they are astounding. It is such a privilege to be able to enjoy these old films in such high quality high definition editions!