Tuesday, 23 October 2012

How Alfred Hitchcock went from zero to hero in the 1930s

I’ve spent far too much time over the past few days watching black and white movies on YouTube. This came about because I was watching my all-time favourite entertainment film, Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, on TV the other day  (for at the least the 30th time – maybe 35th), and not for the first time wondering how the fat little Londoner had ever come to produce something so astonishingly perfect. I’d always assumed that his genius must have been evident in his earlier movies - but realised, just as Hannay was standing up to demand "What are the 39 steps?" that I'd barely seen any of them.

Okay, I'd seen The Lodger (1927) (which is very good - you can watch the whole thing here) last year, and at some stage I'd viewed and quite enjoyed his semi-talkie, 1929's Blackmail  (the one where an English actress had to simultaneously lip-synch the Hungarian star’s dialogue because her accent was so impenetrable - see it here). But what about all the films he made between Blackmail and his 1934 hit, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which marks the start of the run of astonishingly high-grade British pictures which led to Hitchcock being poached by Hollywood?

The answer is that those intervening films were mostly dreadful. I don't mean "not quite up to snuff" - I mean eye-wateringly dire. (Mind you, so were most of the other British films being released at the time, but still... we're talking about Alfred Hitchcock!)

Blackmail was followed by a film of Sean O’Casey’s play set amongst working-class folk in Dublin during the Irish Civil War, Juno and the Paycock. Apart from a brief sequence in a pub and an outdoor scene (both inserted by Hitchcock, with the playwright’s permission, to liven things up a bit, visually) it’s an absolute gobbler – terrible acting, stodgy direction and truly dodgy Oirish accents. The theme tune is "If You're Irish, Step into the Parlour". Begorrah!

Murder! (1930) is a film version of a Clemence Dane play. It’s classic Hitchcock territory, - an actress wrongly accused of murder - and it's not quite as snooze-inducing as Juno and the Paycock, but it shares most of that turkey's faults. The climax, however, isn't bad:

The Skin Game (1931), despite it's title, isn't about prostitution or white slavers. It's based on a John Galsworthy play about a feud between two families which results in a young girl committing suicide. There isn’t a full version on You Tube, but there is this scene involving an auction, where Hitchcock is beginning to have fun with the camera:

It wasn't well-received at the time, and I won't be hunting down a full version of it any time soon.

Next up was Rich and Strange, based on a novel by Dale Collins. A middle class London couple leading a painfully tedious existence are left some money by a relative and decide to travel to experience “life, I tell you!” They both drift off with alternative parteners, the man gets cheated out of £1000 by his new lover, and Mr and Mrs Humdrum get back together again. God, it’s awful: only a quarter of the film contains dialogue, the make-up and the acting is straight out of the silent era, and, while there are a few decent camera tricks, there’s isn’t a hint of suspense. Unsurprisingly, it tanked on both sides of the Atlantic. Just about the only notable scene in the film is the opening sequence, which, as one reviewer pointed out, is more Chaplin than Hitchcock:

1932’s Number Seventeen – based on a stage play - has more recognisably Hitchcockian themes:  It’s to do with jewel robbers trying to escape to the Continent with their loot on a train. But It is execrable: ludicrous plot, spectacularly lousy acting (the comedy tramp has to be endured to be believed), and painfully set-bound, apart from some unconvincing stuff involving a car chasing a train right at the end.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hitchcock followed it up in 1933 with a musical, Waltzes from Vienna, about how "The Blue Danube" came to be composed and performed (and we're supposed to care?). The director described it to Francois Truffaut as the nadir of his career: hard to disagree. (He wouldn't find himself so disastrously out of his genre comfort zone until 1949's Australia-set historical yawnathon, Under Capricorn.)

At this point - 1933 -  I imagine the tubby little chap must have been thinking about topping himself: his silent era triumphs must have seemed a distant memory, and he didn’t seem to have a clue as to how to direct a successful talkie. But then, suddenly, out of the blue, everything clicked into place and he'd just... got it! For the next five years, sparkling hit after sparkling hit seemed to pour effortlessly out of him. In the process, Hitchcock invented the grammar of the screen thriller.

If any sportsman had turned their careers around this spectacularly, you'd assume they'd taken the Lance Armstrong route to glory.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) is the first real Hitchcock talkie. The daughter of a British couple is kidnapped by foreign spies (led by a splendidly creepy Peter Lorre, who had to learn his lines phonetically as he didn't speak a word of English) while the family’s on holiday in Switzerland. Back in London we get the famous assassination scene in the Albert Hall and the Siege of Sydney Street-style ending. The acting ranges from competent to excellent, the dialogue isn’t laughable, the make-up’s believable, the suspense is constant, and it’s all utterly bonkers  – yup, this is Hitchcock all right: he’s off and running (well, waddling, probably), and the modern cinematic spy thriller has been born. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat:

The following year saw the release of that sublime slice of filmic perfection, The 39 Steps, followed in 1936 by John Gielgud playing Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden in The Secret Agentaccompanied by Peter Lorre as the assassin known as “The Hairless Mexican” (because he has lots of hair and isn’t Mexican). Just to confuse everyone, an excellent version of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece about London anarchists, The Secret Agent, renamed Sabotage for the Big Screen, was released that same year. 1937 saw the release of the under-rated Young and Innocent (containing the “blinking drummer” scene – the best revelation-of-a-villain’s-identity moment in all cinema):

Just for good measure, The Lady Vanishes (the nearest rival to The 39 Steps in terms of sustained excitement) was released the following year.

Six superb thrillers in five years. Who could possibly have predicted that, given the dross he produced in the preceding five years. Whenever I get round to seeing the new Bond movie, Skyfall, I'll try to remember that, like all modern thrillers, it had its origin in the most truly golden era of Hitchcock's glorious career.


  1. An excellent post. Thank you very much. You are running hot! Don't fizzle out.

    1. Thank you! I've been neglecting movies of late, so I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

  2. I love The Lady Vanishes but you've got to suspend your critical faculties for a lot of it, starting with the Blue Peter quality model Alpine village at the start. And how does "Froy" written on the inside of a dirty window disappear when the train goes through a tunnel with all the windows shut? All that said, for sustained suspense - not quite sustained excitement to this fan - it's hard to beat old Hitch, with "Notorious" (not the one about Biggie Smalls, for your younger readers) almost unbearably nerve-tweaking.