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

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 30, 2012 at 12:29PM

This year, a Leytonstone-born Londoner born 113 years ago has been all the rage. The subject of two biopics, "The Girl" (which aired on HBO a few weeks back) and "Hitchcock" (which premieres at AFI Fest on Thursday), the director of the newly named greatest film of all time "Vertigo," and a man who's been endlessly homaged, ripped off, and paid tribute to for decades -- of course, we're talknig about Alfred Hitchcock.
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Skin Game
"The Skin Game" (1931)
A surprisingly watchable, if somewhat dated class-clash tale in the manner of Renoir’s “La Regle du Jeu," Hitchcock’s “The Skin Game” may fall far short of its peerless French counterpart, but it makes a divertingly atypical effort from the director nonetheless. Perhaps in contradiction to its salacious-sounding title ("skin game" basically being old slang for a rigged game of chance), the film details the feud between the local gentry, as represented by Squire Hillcrist, his haughty wife and feisty daughter whose family has lived in their house and on their land “since Elizabeth,” and self-made businessman Hornblower, whose brash manner and sensitivity to perceived slights against his family set the two dynasties in opposition. (This despite the mutual attraction between the Hillcrist daughter and Hornblower’s younger son.) It all comes to a head, saga-style, when the dirty tricks employed by both sides escalate to a tragic denouement, in which everyone loses the things they valued most: honour, love, money, respectability or any combination of the above. It’s attractively played, though Phyllis Konstam rather hams it up as the lady with the secret past, and it’s pretty even-handed for a film of this era, though we could wish that New Man Hornblower (the wonderful Edmund Gwenn) was allowed to gain a little more wisdom by the end. Still, while it’s a little static, as many early talkies tended to be, and stylistically it’s rather anonymous for the auteur Hitchcock would become, "The Skin Game” on its own merits, stands up rather well. [B-]

Rich And Strange
"Rich And Strange" (1932)
"Rich And Strange" is a fairly apt title for one of the more atypical films of Hitchcock's career, an odd, uneven, somewhat sour, strangely watchable comedy that sees the director really experimenting with the medium. Fred and Emily Hill (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry) are a British couple who set out on a cruise having received a telegram telling them that they're getting an advance on an inheritance from a wealthy uncle. But almost as soon as they're on board, they both immediately fall for others -- Emily with Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), Fred with a German princess. But neither can quite go through with it, and end up shipwrecked, captured by pirates and eating a cat. As it might sound, it's a fragmented and tonally bonkers film, that veers from light Noel Cowardish romantic comedy to curiously hard-hitting tragedy, and even in form, the film seems caught awkwardly between the silent era (particularly in the performances, which are far from naturalistic) and the talkies. But it's oddly likable for all that, mainly because it feels like Hitch is really playing in the sandbox, trying to tackle as many genres as he can in 90-odd minutes, and chucking some innovative shots and optical tricks at the camera that again demonstrate his growing understanding of the medium. [B-]

Waltzes From Vienna
"Waltzes From Vienna" (1933)
So how devoted a Hitchcock completist are you? Because no matter how finely attuned your critical faculties, and no matter how dedicated you may be to tracing every moment in Hitchcock-the-auteur’s origin story, “Waltzes From Vienna” is going to tax your patience. Apparently a filler movie taken while Hitch was under contract, this is entirely phoned in and almost completely devoid of any of those inspired flourishes that can make even the least of his pictures worth the watching. A stuffy costume drama/romance/musical/biopic, the film veers from misjudged slapstick comedy, to grating chemistry-free romance, to father/son drama via endless repetitions of the Blue Danube waltz. Johann Strauss Jr, in the shadow of his famous composer father (he literally plays second fiddle in Dad’s orchestra), has dreams of a composing career of his own, in which he is helped by a Countess and hindered by his jealous girlfriend who is, essentially, a thundering bitch. Through subterfuge his patroness gets him a gig playing his new waltz which is of course a huge success, that after some more pointless action and back window/ladder-based farcical nonsense, forces his father (himself a thundering bastard) to reappraise his son’s talents, and his selfish shrew of a girlfriend to realise she always loved him. The dullest film on this list by quite some distance, it’s not even an interesting failure, and was believed lost for a long time. Pity it didn’t stay that way, as at best it can be judged to be Hitchcock taking a paycheck and a nice long snooze immediately prior to coming out with his first full-fledged “Hitchcockian” talkie feature, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” the following year. [D-]

The Man Who Knew Too Much
"The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934)
Essentially the birth of the "wrong man" thriller that would lead to some of the director's most popular works, "The Man Who Knew Too Much" came out of Hitchcock's attempt to adapt one of the popular "Bulldog Drummond" detective stories from the screen. The deal fell through, but Hitch, and writer Charles Bennett (who penned the source material for "Blackmail") recycled their plot for an original tale partially inspired by the director's honeymoon in St. Moritz with wife Alma seven years earlier. Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on holiday in the Alps with their precocious daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) when a dying French spy asks them to pass some information regarding an assassination plot on to the British consul. But the villains, led by Abbott (Peter Lorre, making his English-language debut, having just fled Nazi Germany), have kidnapped Betty, and the Lawrences are forced to use all their ingenuity to stop the plot, and save their daughter. Famously later remade by the director in the U.S (which we'll get to in part two), he come pretty close to cracking it the first time around. Bob and Jill are a sort of sparky British version of Nick and Norah Charles, Lorre is a terrific villain (even though he had to learn his English dialogue phonetically), and overall the film's a witty and thrilling picture, and possibly the most entertaining thing the director had made up to this point. Which of the two is the superior version is up to the taste of the individual viewer, but the noirish stylings and stronger female lead give this one the edge for us.
Hitchcock Cameo: Some have suggested that you can see the director walking through shot at the 33:10 mark, but it's pretty much impossible to tell if it's actually him or not. [B+]

39 Steps
"The 39 Steps" (1935)
Probably the first truly great Hitchcock picture, this is the one where everything that he'd been working toward coalesces into a gripping, enormously entertaining chase thriller that feels like it could have been made yesterday. Adapted by "Blackmail" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" scribe Charles Bennett (really finding a groove with the director), from the seminal 1915 spy novel by John Buchan, it sees the perfectly ordinary Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) finding himself embroiled in an espionage ring after watching a performance at a music hall in London, England. Wrongly identified as a spy and a murderer, he flees London for Scotland, pursued by various agents of the law and the underworld. Enter the soon to be tried-and-true, Hitchcock Icy Blonde, played by Madeleine Carroll, who becomes entangled in the chase. Slightly more screwball and playful than some of the director's other films of the period, it's filled with sight-gags (including poor Carrol being handcuffed to Donat and dragged every-which-way, much to Hitchcock’s delight) that mix nicely with the more classically Hitchcockian spy-chase-suspense-thriller narrative, establishing a formula that would serve him well over the decades to come. Donat makes a perfectly dapper and surprisingly physically impressive lead, who meets mortal peril with debonair quips and self-deprecating charm -- it's a shame it's his only work with Hitchcock -- while Carroll is the template for the Hitchcock female lead, sexy, smart and strong-willed. It's been remade three times since, but this stands head and shoulders above all the others, and really sees the director come of age, truly bringing him to the attention of world audiences (thanks to its stars, it was a huge hit both home and abroad). [A]
Hitchcock Cameo: Throwing away a cigarette box outside the theatre at the 06:56 mark.

This article is related to: Features, Alfred Hitchcock, Hitchcock


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