Watching the sound films Hitchock made for British International Pictures

Film Watching the sound films Hitchock made for British International Pictures is a relatively frustrating experience. During his four silent years, he’d mastered the art of visual storytelling, able to communicate cleanly a range of information about plot and character with such precision that his recourse to title cards was relatively rare in comparison to other films of the period. As I suspected, when he’s gifted the ability to use sound, the quality of the work disintegrates.

Mostly this is because of the ‘technology’; cameras became static and housed in what amounted to small rooms so as to shield the hammer of the shutters away from the microphones which means that often scenes that would require a collection of different image types are now often reduced to a single continuous shot of two or three people in a room talking, which I imagine was the novelty back then so audiences were far more tolerant of the languorous pacing but now are a horrifyingly tedious experience.

Only when Hitch is given a piece of the story which can only be told visually do these films truly sing; the cutting is now pretty ropy as is the sound editing (from what I heard, when you shot something you were stuck with whatever background noise was evident). Yet, there are still moments, which I’ll mention below, that are as good as some of his silent material and definitely point to him working through his ideas as to the kinds of films he was interested in making, this nine year period starting with The Pleasure Garden his film school.

Strip away the historical relevance of Blackmail (first British talkie), the elements that point to Hitch’s future tastes (a climax at a national landmark in this case the British Museum) and the reason I’d recommend the film is for Anny Ondra’s central performance as the tobacconist’s daughter who’s caught in the blackmail plot after she murders an artist in self defence. It’s often trivialised because Ondra’s heavy Czech accent, not a problem in silent film, led to Hitch having her mime her sound scenes with another actress standing on set filling in with the words, and there’s no doubt in those moments she’s distractingly uncomfortable.

Hitch doesn’t actually show us the murder. It all happens behind the curtain, first the girl’s screams as the man takes advantage of her, then her hand reaching out to grasp a knife, then what we assume to be a stabbing, and the dead man’s hand relaxing into view. Then it’s all up to Ondra to relay what has happened and it’s in these silent moments, the actress offers a tour de force in reactive exposition as at first the gravity of what she’s done hits her then the quite resignation in realising that she’s a completely different person, that there’s nothing to be done, and she rather coolly cleans the murder scene as best she can, her eyes wide and glassy throughout.

Hitch next made the tedious Juno and the Paycock, a film he hated making at the time and had nothing good to say about later on, and it's almost as though Blackmail never happened. Based on a play about the slums of Dublin during the Irish Civil War, he decided to faithfully shoot the thing word for word without much in the way of directorial intervention and I think it’s about the longest hour and a half I’ve spent in front of any film. The pacing is catatonic, the acting superficial, and it’s near impossible to follow what story there is (about a non-existent inheritance) because the strong accents coupled with primitive microphone technology renders much of the dialogue inaudible.

There’s a famous scene in which the characters sit listening to a gramophone record and the only way to achieve this was to have singers and a band on set off camera playing in the music. But on screen it still amounts to the action stopping so that we can watch the characters sit listening to a gramophone record. About the only interesting element is the relationship between the head of the family, Boyle and his friend Joxer, who look like prototypes for Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with jokes about groinal problems, drunkness and at least initially a general impression of inertia.

Predictably, judging by the title, Hitch is far more comfortable with his next film Murder!, his only murder mystery (which he also made in German). He’s back in experimental mode as the director offers the first occasion of a lead actor’s thoughts appearing in voiceover on the soundtrack as a member of the jury at a trial comes to the conclusion (whilst shaving!) that the woman he helped to convict is in fact innocent. It’s still relatively creaky stuff though; some of the scenes continue on beyond his point being made like he’s still directing the character scenes in a silent film, and the resolution is pure Scooby-Doo as the real villain is revealed to be some hitherto unseen assailant.

The Time Out Film Guide notes that the film offers British cinema’s first gay stereotype which is true though Hitch euphemistically describes him as mixed-race or 'half-caste' instead. The film is a menagerie of odd balls and lost souls as the director delves into the theatrical world for the first time and can’t quite seem to decide how sympathetic he wants to be. Theatre has rarely been given a fair display on film, just as plays about film rarely work either unless there’s a Shakespearean element, chemically the two simply can’t mix unless the Bard is added as an agent.

Hitchcock’s next project was this sketch for the revue film Elstree Calling. It’s hilarious.

Lol, rofl etc.

Another theatre adaptation, The Skin Game is saved from Paycock-style tedium by three things. Firstly, it’s thematically interesting as new wealth in the form of a nouveau riche northerner breezes into the lives of some aristocrats as he attempts to buy the land next to their stately home to build a coal mine so it’s about the class struggle and the industrialisation of the countryside. That's The Skin Game, the rivalry between the two factions that eventually leads to tragedy.

The said epitome of new money, Hornblower is played by one Edmund Glenn who’d later essay the part of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street and seems to channel one of Brian Glover’s performances from the future as he chews through some whacking great political speeches that also recall Shylock. Thirdly, when the land is up for auction we see the bidders from the auctioneers perspective, the camera darting from face to face across the room as the strategies of the interested parties playout.

It’s difficult to like Number 17. Another play brought to the screen, this time Hitch decided to take the piss somewhat and do it in the style of his previous thrillers with lots of editing, shadows and men in hats and coats culminating in a chase sequence using steam engines. Consequently it has bags of atmosphere with some beautifully lit bits of suspense and excellent use of close-ups. Paul Merton spent some time in his recent documentary highlighting the model work in the finale, which is probably revolutionary, but I just wish it had been in service of something a bit more coherent.

The problem is he’s also stripped out anything related to logical storytelling and none of the characters are introduced properly and he only really spells out what’s been happening for the past hour in the closing minute or two. There’s also some particularly irritating clowning from Leon M Lion as a manservant, whose sole purpose is to point out where and when the ‘jokes’ are happening just in case we miss them.

Hitchcock’s final film for BIP was Rich and Strange a fantastic little curio and the one film that isn’t Blackmail I’d recommend you seeking out. A bored suburban couple with marital difficulties come into some money and decide to go on the south sea cruise they’ve always dreamed of and extra martial affairs and other adventures ensue. A labour of love, Hitch returns to all of the elements of silent cinema he was forced to lose in the sound era, the illustrative titles, the fast, punchy editing, expressive acting and exaggerated make up style and yet it’s the most modern of these films. Most of the dialogue is functional and naturalistic and there’s a sense of anecdotal storytelling, a free wheeling structure.

And it just works. The screwball chemistry between the leads Henry Kendall and Joan Barry (who was the voice of Anny Ondra in Blackmail just to bookend things) is as good as anything I’ve seen from old Hollywood, especially in the final quarter of the film when for various reasons the plot steers into black comedy and a kind of loopy desperation sets in. Proceedings only really lag during some of the longer dialogue scenes and when Elsie Randolph’s old maid stumbles through as the comic relief. Even then, she’s deployed at a crucial moment to add a layer of tragedy – think Mrs Bagot during the closing scene of Brief Encounter. It’s worth speculating what might have happened if this film had not been a critical and commercial failure – would Hitchcock still have become the master of suspense?

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