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Retrospective: The Films Of Alfred Hitchcock Pt. 1 (1925-1939)

Features
by The Playlist Staff
October 30, 2012 12:29 PM
4 Comments
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"Easy Virtue" (1928)
Perhaps failing to notice that a lot of what made Noel Coward’s play “Easy Virtue” a hit on stage in 1925 was Coward’s facility with language and dialogue, Hitchcock elected to make this silent version in 1928. Then again, perhaps he was excited by the challenge of rendering visually the verbal wit and nuance of the play. If the latter, it’s safe to say he didn’t wholly succeed: as a film it is not unbearable by any means, but it’s essentially a morality play which means that the loss of some of the subtler shadings of characterization that the silent format necessitates makes it feel at times rather on the nose and lacking in depth. Without sophisticated wordplay that reveals hidden motivations and agendas there is nothing to distract from the bare mechanics of a plot which now seems fusty, dusty and old-fashioned, reflecting as it does the ingrained misogyny of the period in which it was set. Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans) is an attractive blonde married to a brutish drunk, who becomes the defendant in a notorious adultery case despite being innocent of any infidelity. Reputation ruined, she flees to France where she finds love with young John Whittaker, who is, and wilfully remains, ignorant of her past. They marry and return to England where Whittaker’s family, especially his mother, set about making Larita’s life difficult, until her secret comes out and she martyrs herself by getting a second divorce which will allow John to marry another woman, but will see her splashed across the newspapers and gossip rags all over again. There are some sweet touches here and there - Larita and John’s meet is very cute indeed (he hits her in the eye with a tennis ball), and a scene in which we learn about Larita’s acceptance of John’s proposal through the changing expressions on an eavesdropping telephone operator’s face feels like it’s going straight into the Hitchcock playbook. But a few contemporary-feeling elements can’t distract from the sanctimony of the film’s premise. Narratively, it is reminiscent of 1927’s “Downhill,” but there, circumstance eventually favours the young, innocent hero with a complete restoration of all he’s lost. Here, Larita may be innocent, but she’s marked as a fallen woman, and so by the end, her only option is to sacrifice herself and fall further. It’s a story that’s of its time -- and if Hitchock was perhaps unwise in attempting the silent version, he might have taken comfort in knowing that the all-talkie 2008 incarnation with Jessica Biel isn’t much better. [C]
Hitchcock Cameo: Walks past the tennis court at 21:15.

"The Manxman" (1929)
An adaptation of an 1890s novel by Hall Caine that was an absolute blockbuster at the time (but is now essentially forgotten), "The Manxman" marks not only the director's last silent film (his next picture, "Blackmail" was remade as a sound version), but also one of his last ventures into full-on melodrama. Set on the Isle of Man (but filmed in Cornwall -- ironically enough, tax breaks now mean that the Isle of Man is a popular U.K. film location), it's a fairly creaky old-fashioned tale of two lifelong friends, fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), who fall for the same woman, Kate (Anny Ondra). Pete proposes first, but when he goes off to seek his fortune in Africa, he asks Philip to look after her. The pair fall in love, marry and have a child when they believe Pete to be dead, only for the prodigal fiance to return alive and well. Yes, it's essentially the plot of "Pearl Harbor" (and was pretty rote in the 1920s, so you'd think a 21st century screenwriter would have tried a little harder...) The locations are stunning, DoP Jack E. Cox pulling off perhaps his finest work with Hitch, and there's some very nifty editing, but despite that, and a beguiling performance from Hungarian actress Ondra (who'd go on to marry legendary boxer Max Schmeling), it's one of the director's least memorable films of the era. The performances by Brisson and Keen are quite ropey, the morality feels finger-wagging, and Hitch ultimately feels a bit disinterested. Worth watching for the visuals (a gorgeous new restoration just premiered at the London Film Festival), but its place outside of the canon is mostly deserved. [C]

"Blackmail" (1929)
It’s often asserted that the early days of talking pictures saw a regression of filmic technique from the fluidity of the late ‘20s in order to accommodate the cumbersome logistics of recording sound on set. But whether “Blackmail,” Hitchcock’s first talkie, proves or disproves that rule is up for debate. Because “Blackmail,” after its cronky, silent and weirdly procedural first 8 minutes, is pretty great, and arguably marks a high watermark in Hitch’s early filmography, but it was planned as a silent -- in fact, a silent version, which required some reshooting, was also released, as many theaters hadn’t yet installed sound equipment. Perhaps as a result, and probably more successfully than Hitch’s next few films, it managed to straddle that awkward changeover period with fewer major compromises of its visual style.  So we get some lovely expressionistic moments, like a shadow falling across our heroine’s neck like a noose and a climactic chase through the British Museum, which are Hitchcockian before that was even a thing. What’s more surprising is that even though this was the director’s first time out with sound, there are moments of invention. In a technique that is basically the sonic equivalent of a subjective shot to show a character’s mental state, the chatter of a neighbour becomes reduced to background noise with just the word “knife” jumping out distinctly every time she says it, putting us inside the guilty mind of our protagonist. The plot: pretty but petulant Alice is the victim of an attempted rape during which she grabs a knife (knife...knife...knife) and kills her attacker. Her boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, finds her glove at the scene and realises her involvement, but so does a shady blackmailer who tracks her to the shop her father runs, where a nasty parlour game plays out between the three of them and her unwitting parents. Anny Ondra is terrific in selling Alice’s transition from silly, flirty shopgirl to almost catatonically fearful killer, a performance all the more remarkable because her accent was deemed unfit for the audience’s ears. And in the era before post-dubbing was possible, she instead mouthed her lines while another actress offscreen spoke them aloud. Hitch even gets in a little sly humor: Alice defends the authenticity of a new crime film out in theaters saying, “I heard they got a real criminal to direct it, just to be on the safe side.” It’s a fun ride, an important milestone for Hitch, oh, and all those people who like to say that “Vertigo” is the only Hitchcock where the killer gets away with it? They're wrong… [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: A great one, and unusually lengthy, at about 20 seconds, you can see him being annoyed by a child reading a book on the tube, at the 10:25 mark.

"Juno & The Paycock" (1930)
Now that it was an option, Hitchcock leapt at the chance to tackle something positively packed with dialogue, and so for his first post-"Blackmail" project, he selected "Juno & The Paycock," an adaptation of the classic stage play by one of Ireland's most beloved playwrights, Sean O'Casey (and known as "The Shame Of Mary Boyle" in the U.S., for reasons lost to the mists of time). The plot revolves around the Dublin Boyle family -- Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman), Juno (Sara Allgood), Mary (Kathleen O'Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) -- who are told by English solicitor Mr. Bentham (John Longden) that they're due to become wealthy from an inheritance. The family celebrate, spending before it comes in, but it turns out that Mr. Bentham made the whole thing up, and the family are broke, Mary is left pregnant and Johnny is killed by the IRA for shopping a colleague to the authorities. It takes a sure hand to handle the play's shift from comedy to tragedy (there was a terrific production a few years ago at London's National Theatre starring Ciaran Hinds), but it's not really to be found here, unfortunately. Hitchcock seems to be so enamored of being able to record dialogue that he forgets to do much but simply shoot a stage play, and many of the performers seem to forget that they're acting for camera, going for broad caricatures rather than real people. The result is that when the gut-punch conclusion comes, it's ultimately ineffective. We certainly regard it among the bottom rung of Hitchcock's pictures, but you can see for yourself -- the whole film's available to watch on YouTube.[D+]

"Murder!" (1930)
HItchcock wasn't much of a fan of the whodunnit genre, complaining that it "contains no emotion," but he did make one exception, with this 1930 thriller. Serving as something of a love-letter to the theater world, like the later "Stage Fright," and like his other 1930 film "Juno and the Paycock," an adaptation of a play, it sees Diana Baring (Norah Baring), an actress, accused of murdering a colleague and set for the noose. But one juror, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), himself from the theater world, isn't convinced of her guilt, and sets out to investigate the crime. It's a fairly ridiculous set-up and like in 'Juno,' the director's still finding it difficult to escape the stage origins of his material. But the signs are there that he's starting to work it out with an impressive opening tracking shot, a lingering shot of the jury room, empty, while the verdict is delivered, and the superimposition of the victim's face on the real killer as they hang themselves (the film also contains one major innovation; the first recorded use of voiceover to suggest internal monologue). And there's some intriguing subtext in the motivations of the villain, which gives things some psychological depth, and a little camp value. It's a reasonable watch, but probably interesting more as evidence of Hitch's development as a director, and of the medium, than as a film itself. It's worth noting that Hitchcock simultaneously shot a German-language version, "Mary" on the same sets with German actors -- it was released in 1931. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: At the one hour mark, walking past the murder scene.

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4 Comments

  • Brian | March 27, 2013 8:18 PMReply

    I really love your reviews. You mentioned a couple you hadn't seen before.

    Number Seventeen starts out a little hard to follow. It is worth weeding through it. Like so many of the others, Hitchcock particularly focused the drama on the stairs in this film.
    One scene shows his peculiar sense of humor. The suspense scene of the couple tied to a stairway railing. The actress remarks to her costar, "It's like the pictures, isn't it?" Just then the railing breaks and they are suspended high above. The audience feels the dangling above death that Hitchcock did so well.

    Champagne has some good elements too. It is worth watching if you can get through it's disjointed feel. I particularly like watching the heiress, Betty Balflour, struggle in Paris working as a flower girl at a night club.

    On a side note, I have to say that I did like parts of Jamaica Inn. The scenes with Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara have something odd but special. It is a weird film for sure. The final scene where Charles Laughton's character goes crazy and climbs the mast is very Hitchcockian.

  • El Hanso | October 30, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    Holy cow! This is gonna be huge! Always like these "The Films of..." specials and I find Hitchcock particularly interesting. Not just because he made tons of films.
    So far: Great job.

  • TheoC | October 30, 2012 4:37 PMReply

    Great stuff, another well written, entertaining, educating feature. A labour of love and well researched can't wait for part two.

  • JD | October 30, 2012 1:19 PMReply

    Great work, guys, can't wait for part II.

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