Having just hit his stride with "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "The 39 Steps," 1936's "Secret Agent" saw Hitch back in similar territory, with the director taking on W. Somerset Maugham's popular character Ashenden, a writer-turned-spy, here played by the great John Gielgud. Somehow, it's not as well-regarded as its predecessors among the cinerati, but it's rather a terrific little film in many ways. Gielgud (who hated the film, and never worked with the director again) plays Ashenden, a writer and solider who fakes his death in the midst of the First World War in order to prevent a German agent from reaching Turkey and allying with local forces. He teams up with charming killer The General (Peter Lorre), and Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), a fellow agent doubling as his wife, in what is a much more serious look at the espionage genre than its two predecessors, examining the cost of being a spy a good 70 years before Bourne and co. did the same. And this does mean that it's slightly lacking the spark of the ones that came before. But it's taut, and thrilling, and with Lorre and Carroll, has a supporting team that a "Mission: Impossible" movie would be proud of. Holding up surprisingly well, it's one of the films on the director's CV that deserves serious reconsideration. [B+]
A rather different, and somewhat less successful (though far from uninteresting) take on the spy flick than the same year's "Secret Agent," "Sabotage" is, confusingly, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel "The Secret Agent," and unrelated to the later, and superior "Saboteur." It focuses on a London cinema owner, Karl Verloc (Oscar Homolka), who's actually an agent for an Eastern European terrorist cell (stripped of the anarchist leanings of the novel, and therefore of much of the political subtext). In order to nab him, Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder, replacing an unavailable Robert Donat) goes undercover as a greengrocer, only to be drawn to Verloc's young and unknowing wife (Sylvia Sidney). Hitchcock himself was derisive of the film, later complaining to Francois Truffaut that he felt the key bomb sequence (in which Sidney's younger brother is blown up on a bus carrying explosives for Verloc) broke his key rule of suspense; that the threat was always more thrilling than the consequences. And it's hard not to feel that the film's a little compromised, from its derivations from the source material (though Christopher Hampton's 1996 remake, under the novel's title, isn't much better), to the casting, with none of the actors truly making an impression. That said, there's an intriguing ambiguity to the picture, with Homolka making a curiously sympathetic mad bomber, and despite Hitchcock's views, the bomb sequence is surprising, shocking and powerful. A disappointment, certainly, but not one without its pleasures. [C+]
Hitchcock Cameo: Nine minutes in, walking down the pavement as kiosk shutters come down.
Released in America as “The Girl Was Young,” this mystery stars 18-year-old Nova Pilbeam as the titular woman, Erica Burgoyne, who is naively swept into helping an innocent man, Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney), prove he wasn’t responsible for the death of his famous actress lover. “Young and Innocent” doesn’t quite rank with Hitchcock’s best British films, but it’s an entertaining picture that already features many of Hitchcock’s hallmarks, including a tale around the wrongfully accused, a blond beauty, an impressive pan across a crowded room and a sprinkling of humor to lighten the proceedings. Since most of the film is told from Erica’s perspective, we’d have loved to have seen a bit more doubt cast on Robert’s innocence throughout the film, but this wasn’t meant to be “Suspicion,” and instead the film relies on her naiveté to drive their interactions. We’d be remiss in not mentioning that the final scene of this film (and its American artwork) features actors in blackface, but allowing the initial shock for modern audiences to distract from the climax means that you’d miss some masterful camerawork throughout the scene. [B]
Hitchcock Cameo: Sixteen minutes in, outside the courtroom with the camera
This train-set film reveals a few tropes Hitchcock would return to time and again: a single setting, a racing plot, a light touch with tone, and a sophisticated play on perspective that never gives anything away and keeps the surprises coming left and right. Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood play an unlikely couple who meetcute in a mountainside inn in the remote country of Bandrika, before embarking on a train journey back home that is quickly sent off the rails with the disappearance of sweet governess Miss Froy. The dashing duo set off on a wild-goose chase that reveals a plot of international espionage, all the while contending with their fellow travelers, a motley crew of wacky characters who throw up obstacles at every front. Hitch allows every one a full characterization and time to riff, while also keeping the story moving along, right up to the final shootout that caps everything off. It’s a fun little mystery that feels fresh and modern today, and a unique story that could only have been pulled off with such panache and flair by the master himself. [A-]
Hitchcock Cameo: Smoking a cigarette at Victoria Station at 1:32:31
The notorious whipping boy of the legend’s CV, on paper it’s hard to see where "Jamaica Inn" went so horribly wrong. Based on the book by Daphne du Maurier (eventually also the source for “Rebecca” and “The Birds”), the story concerns smugglers who tamper with lighthouses in order to ultimately rob the unlucky ships that run aground, killing all aboard and delivering the spoils to Humphrey Pengallon, the magistrate. The niece of one crook (also the keeper of the titular inn) discovers her uncle’s true ways and interferes with the lynching of a former member who also happens to be a double agent, sent undercover by the law. The two escape from the clutches of the group, working tirelessly to stop another shipwreck -- and hey, don’t you know it, they start to dig each other’s company. Though many Hitchcock elements are in play and the talent -- Robert Newton, Maureen O'Hara, Charles Laughton (who would eventually go on to make the incredible “The Night Of The Hunter”) -- is pretty considerable, the entire film is rather strained and lifeless. Both the smugglers and the magistrate are downright weird characters, but instead of utilizing their oddness, it seems that Hitchcock hoped we’d ignore it. The director spoke of clashing with Laughton, who was additionally a producer on the project and had his own ideas of how to run the show. His idea for the character clearly clashed with the director’s, creating a tonally awkward and often silly atmosphere. The last film Hitchcock did before journeying to America was one that he was always unhappy with, and could barely talk about when interviewed extensively by Francois Truffaut. It’s understandable: aside from the exciting opening sequence of a ship hijacking, most of ‘Jamaica’ is dull as nails. [D+]
Other: Hitchcock was meant to have made his directorial debut at Gainsborough Pictures in 1922 with "Number 13," also known as "Mrs. Peabody" -- filming began, but it ran out of money, and any footage has been lost. A similar fate also met his 1927 second feature, "The Mountain Eagle," a Kentucky-set melodrama filmed in Austria. The director told Truffaut that he thought it was "awful," and that he was "not sorry there are no known prints." But the film remains a holy grail for cinephiles. Around the same time, Hitchcock co-directed (with Seymour Hicks) a short comedy called "Always Tell Your Wife," but only a single reel survives.
Another curio for Hitchcock fans is "Elstree Calling," a "cine-radio review" involving sketches and musical numbers, in the manner of films like "Paramount on Parade." Hitchcock contributed the linking segments, about a man trying to tune in to the revue on television (several years before TV broadcasts began in the U.K.; it may be the first movie to directly refer to television).
Something had to slip through our cracks, and we were ultimately unable to track down copies of either 1928's "Champagne," a poorly-regarded light silent comedy starring Betty Balfour, or 1932's comedy-heist-thriller "Number Seventeen." If you've seen either, do let us know what you think of them in the comments section below.
- Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Katie Walsh, Kimber Myers, Christopher Bell, Sam Chater