the final set of British films Hitchcock made before going to the US

Film Onward through the final set of British films Hitchcock made before going to the US. He’s described them as his audition for Hollywood and certainly many of them were hits in the states which is why David O. Selznick gave him the offer to direct Titanic (more on which next time). These works show an increasing level of sophistication, both in their shooting style, his ability to deal with actors and primarily storytelling, knowing where to rest the audience’s focus and how much information should be revealed to them.

When Hitch later remade The Man Who Knew Too Much, he anonymised the villain and focused the story more on the parent’s search for the young girl. The original is a bit more even handed, with Peter Laurie stealing most of his scenes, his curious face both charming and sadistic, seemingly able to control the situation with a look. It was a privilege to see what the interior of the Royal Albert Hall looked like in the 1930s and was unsurprised that at ground level it hasn’t changed that much, though I wonder if there's still the apparent demonstration of the class system between the balcony and the cheap seats. The finale’s a blast too – literally – and entirely unlike some contemporary flicks in that the protagonist, the father, largely sits on his hands whilst the men of the British Constabulary save him!

So successful is Hitchcock’s adaptation of The 39 Steps, later films that are closer to Buchan’s novel have been criticised for not including elements that that the director invented – the recent BBC version was effectively a remake of this, re-lensing some some of its iconic images, such as the chase across the moor for HD television. Much as I enjoyed that, none of it was as effective as, for example, Hannay’s encounter with the woman who aspires to the metropolitan lifestyle trapped in a remote farmhouse, and her heartbreaking look as the potentially most exciting episode in her life ends as the London man on the run walks out into the morning light and you know that she’s going to be remembering and mythologizing that night for the rest of her existence.

There’s a genial matter of factness to the escapade as Hannay finds himself trapped by the police and his enemies, situation somehow becoming more sinister when everyone is being so terribly civilised because barbarism still constantly bubbles under the surface. There's also another example of one of Hitch’s abrupt endings which on reflection is nothing of the sort. Once the story has been tied up, the only impression we get that Hannay and Annabella have a life together is the clasping of hands. We’ve seen that they’re perfectly made for each other in the preceding half hour so what more needs to be said?

Secret Agent is the proper misfire of the period and Hitch himself knew it. The problem is that there’s no urgency to the mission of Gielgud’s reluctant spy and because this is such a small cast you can deduce what the twist will be very early on. Still, the dialogue mostly crackles as does his chemistry with the returning Medeleine Carroll and it’s quite a surprise to see an actor so often associated with aged establishment roles and that quiveringly recognisable voice of authority as such a young, vital figure. No denying too that the central moment were the plot turns on its head is very well edited, Hitch marshalling a tonal shift that just about works.

Hitch wasn’t pleased with Sabotage either. He didn’t think that Desmond Lester was up to the role of the undercover police office keeping tabs on the secret agent and broke his own rules about dissipating audience tension at the close of a suspenseful sequence. To explain why would spoil the thing and I’m not going to do that for once because I actually disagree with him – it’s a very brave experiment though you could see why the audience might turn against him the way they did. Watch out for the hilarious, totally irrelevant sequence in the middle in a pet shop about a woman complaining that her canary isn’t singing (which must have influenced the Pythons during the writing of the parrot sketch) and also the deployment of a Disney cartoon as a catalyst for the film's tragic conclusion.

More next week...

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