Hitchcock Is Hot (part 2)
I hope you all had fun with those lovely romantic clips (well, the North by Northwest one wasn’t that romantic unless it was the story of a crop duster expressing its passion for Cary G by stalking him across a cornfield) last month. I thought this month I’d delve into Hitchcock’s early career in England and specifically look at two of my favorite films of Alfred Hitchcock’s that mightn’t be so familiar to modern audiences, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps.
In my prior incarnation as a wage-earner in Sydney, I was lucky enough to catch a visiting British Film Institute collection of the director’s British work touring to mark the centenary of his birth in 1899. It was fascinating to watch the director develop from the creepy silent The Lodger (starring Ivor Novello who features in Gosford Park as Jack the Ripper type) through to the last masterpiece of his British period The Lady Vanishes in 1938. David O. Selznick, who was always on the watch for talent, persuaded Hitchcock to go to America after that and it was in Hollywood that he made his most famous films. But some of these earlier ones are definitely worth a look.
The joy of watching a whole cavalcade of films was seeing that it took Hitchcock a while to find his feet as an artist even if some things were there right from the start. An understanding for character in action. The black humor. The suspense. A dark romanticism. Prickly but intense sexual tension. In a Hitchcock film, the path of true love rarely runs smooth! It’s always interesting to see that even a genius doesn’t always create a work of genius every time. Some of these films were downright clunky and I don’t just mean the early film technology.
By the time he came to make The 39 Steps in 1935, though, he’d pretty much worked out his style and what he wanted to say. And the camera work is brilliant – there’s a brilliant scene where the screaming mouth of the woman who discovers the murder victim cuts straight into a train tunnel where our hero is escaping the murder charge. This is such a fun film and uses the device of the innocent man pursued relentlessly and for seemingly no reason (North by Northwest is another example). Robert Donat (who is wonderful in the part!) falls foul of a ring of spies and finds himself chased all over the Scottish Highlands and into the arms of beautiful Madeleine Carroll who at first wants to betray him but ends up on his side (very North by Northwest). In one scene, they’re handcuffed together and the dialogue bristles with sexual awareness and danger. Great stuff.
My favorite of these early films is Hitchcock’s last British work before he went to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes. I think that’s because the romance in this one is such fun. Michael Redgrave, who is actually extremely sexy, and Margaret Lockwood strike sparks off each other from the moment they’re forced to share a room at an overcrowded and rather rustic inn in the obscure (and fictional) eastern European country of Bandrika. Our heroine is heading back to London to marry her stodgy fiancé Charles. Our hero is a specialist in ethnic music – lots of fun moments when he makes dreadful sounds on obscure folk instruments and she attempts to squash his pretensions. They express their tension in witty squabbling until they’re drawn together to foil the spies who spirit away a lovely old lady Margaret Lockwood meets on the train. Poor Margaret! Nobody will believe the old woman even existed, let alone that she’s in danger. Great hijinks and suspense ensue.
“You heartless, callous, selfish, swollen-headed beast!” They don’t write dialogue like that anymore! And isn’t that a great kiss?
Seriously, see if you can track down these films. They’re smart and funny and beautifully done.