Alfred Hitchcock of course doesn’t need any introduction. He is invariably named one of the best directors of all time and his films have received monumental cult status. Most of the reverence over the years has, however, focused on his Hollywood masterpieces with his earlier English movies not always getting the attention they deserve. A new DVD box set dedicated to that timeframe promises to address this situation. It includes most of his best known works of the period as well as some silent films that were previously extremely rare.
The Pleasure Garden (1925)
The Pleasure Garden was Hitchcock’s first properly finished movie. He had previously started working on a movie called Number 13, but production stopped half way through when funding could no longer be secured. He had also been involved in the direction of the short movie Always Tell Your Wife.
The Pleasure Garden is a moral play and melodrama so typical of its time that hasn’t aged all that well and if it wasn’t for the fact that Hitchcock was involved in it, it probably would have been forgotten by now. An innocent and pious young girl arrives in the city to make it big as a dancer, initially gets taken advantage off, but quickly learns to play the game and works her way through a succession of rich men, forgetting about her faithful fiancé working in the overseas plantations. Meanwhile her street wise friend and fellow chorus dancer messes around with the wrong guy until she finally finds true love and happiness with the abandoned fiancé. Call it the Showgirls of its time, though it is hard to imagine that anyone ever would have considered the clumsy looking dance routines anything other than laughable. Lots of fake beards and dramatic gestures with a few hints at what was going to be in store for us in future productions.
The most Hitchcockian moment probably comes when we see the native lover of the slimeball husband walk into the sea in order to commit suicide. After a lot of shifty eyeball movements he follows her into the water in an apparent attempt to save her, though when he reaches her he simply drowns her himself!
The Pleasure Garden was followed by The Mountain Eagle (1926), a film that is now considered lost.The Lodger (1926)
The Lodger was Hitchcock’s third full feature and his first real Hitchcockian thriller, quickly establishing him as a master of suspense. The DVD collection features two prints of the movie. The main one a newly restored BFI print running at close to 90 minutes, the second one an only slightly less appealing looking 70 minute archive print. The main difference in their running times appears to be primarily due to differences in their running speed.
For some obscure reason the main print, however, does not include a musical score and is completely silent. Call me an ignorant and heretic: when faced with the option of viewing a faster running copy including musical mood cues to a completely silent longer version, I go for the shorter print anytime. They may call these silent movies, but they were never meant to be that silent!
The Lodger is based on a then popular novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes and is a Jack the Ripper mystery in all but name. The fiend here instead is named “The Avenger” and matinee idol Ivor Novello plays the eponymous lodger who appears to have a thing for (or should that be: against?) young girls and leaves the apartment for strange night time excursions. Could the public accept one of their heroes as the sadistic serial killer? Well, if you haven’t seen that film yet, do yourself a favour and check it out for yourself.Downhill (1927)
Downhill is another silent movie morality play directed by Hitchcock, featuring Lodger star Ivor Novello who also was co-author of the initial play this is based on. After a scandal at a university, Novello’s character gets expelled as well as disowned by his father and starts a downhill slide through life, wasting an inheritance on a dance hall floozy, working as a gigolo and ending up as a drunken homeless in the port of Marseille before making his way back into the arms of his family.
Just like The Lodger, the print on this DVD does not feature a musical score. Again, if it wasn’t for the fact that this was directed by Hitch, this would have been forgotten by now. One of the most memorable snippets of the movie show the glittering scenery of dance halls by night and then blend to an image of those gritty looking at day time. Towards the end when our fallen hero prepares his homecoming we also get a number of fantastic delusional scenes that foreshadow some of the Freudian dream sequences in Hitchcock’s later movies,
Following Downhill, Hitchcock shot another dozen movies in various genres including Blackmail, his first talking picture and first proper thriller after The Lodger. Neither Blackmail nor Murder, an equally interesting early Hitchcock movie, are represented in this set which continues with The Man Who Knew Too Much, arguably his first real English masterpiece that fully established him as a master of suspense. Following this he very rarely strayed from his favourite format.The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Despite being one of his early masterpieces, The Man Who Knew Too Much does have its downsides. From the six talking thrillers of the set, this is probably the weakest. It is quite talky and the final climactic shoot out is overdrawn and, primarily showing the kidnappers shooting from windows in their room, it lacks a proper perspective and could have done with a montage that would draw more attention to the approaching police forces. It is little wonder that Hitchcock later on in Hollywood decided to remake this into a much better production.
The movie’s best and most memorable scenes are towards the middle and have a certain Edgar Wallace touch: when researching the kidnappers of his daughter our hero stumbles across their lair behind otherwise respectable looking institutions in London. Nothing is as it seems. A dental surgery doubles as the secret meeting point for the assassins and an eccentric group of sun loving occultists (traces of the then still popular Golden Dawn orders) harbours yet another hiding place for the villains.The 39 Steps (1935)
This John Buchan adaptation in many ways is Hitchcock’s quintessential film of the 1930s. Based on the flimsiest of premises this is one rollercoaster ride of a movie quickly moving from one superb set piece to the next. In actual fact, this could be called a perfect movie if it wasn’t for one seriously enraging narrative faux pas. In one scene we see our hero (played by Robert Donat) apparently left for dead in a house in the Highlands, shot by the mysterious leader of a foreign spy ring. In the next scene we see Donat’s character explain his escape to the local police. That’s right: the solution to the most crucial of predicaments possible for a cinematic hero is left unseen and off screen and instead just relayed to the viewer indirectly through an explanatory speech.
Coming from such a visual director, this is one hell of a head scratching moment. Still, this is a fun film with lots to love including one of Hitch’s first elaborate train sequences and a very comical scene in which Donat’s character is mistaken for a visiting politician and needs to quickly improvise a speech. The beauty of this production lies in the ever changing circumstances encountered by him: comical scenes are followed by action sequences which are followed by suspenseful moments. There really isn’t one single dull moment in this picture. And Madeleine Carroll is one the best of Hitchcock’s early icy nlondes who was also to return in the next production.Secret Agent (1936)
Secret Agent is an adaptation of William Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden novel. This has always been considered to be an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond. With a stern no-nonsense boss figure called R (Charles Carson) sending Ashenden (John Gielgud) on an international spy hunt across Switzerland and the Bulgarian/Turkish border, meeting classy Blondes and sipping exquisite cocktails while wearing tuxedoes, it is very easy to see this as a proto-Bond movie. Hell, we even have a crucial scene set at a roulette table!
If anything, however, this is much darker stuff than your average Bond adventure. Remember how the scene from Dr No where Bond kills a defenceless man in cold blood is always quoted as being an unprecedented watershed mark in British film history? Well, in Secret Agent we don’t just get to see the cruel killing of another unarmed character. In a later sequence we even learn that this guy was an innocent wrong man set up as a stooge by the real spy! Behind its glamorous façade the world of espionage is shown as a cruel game perpetrated by human blood hounds (Peter Lorre apparently reprising his earlier shtick from The Man Who Knew Too Much) with no place for heroes.
Having just filmed a movie called Secret Agent, Hitchcock made the ingenious decision to film an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, thereby forcing him to change the title. He also quite upped the ante in the most famous scene of the film: he had previously allowed the reluctant hero to kill off an innocent, he now had a young boy blown up with a bomb. This is a scene that still has the power to shock and that clearly goes against the unwritten law of never killing children onscreen and that Hitchcock later regretted, feeling that he created an immensely successful suspense sequence without giving the viewer the opportunity to experience a proper positive release of tension. Yet, this scene is straight from the original novel and instrumental to the narrative.Young and Innocent (1937)
Young and Innocent has often come in for criticism as being light fluff, but this is probably one of his most overall entertaining movies and proof that Hitchcock was able to do lighthearted comedy. Most of his movies of course do have quite a humorous touch to them, though it is usually a very dark kind of humour. Here, however, we have the opportunity to see him successfully attempt screwball style witticisms and antics set in a classic Hitchcockian plot. There are strong similarities to The 39 Steps when we see an innocent accused of a murder he did not commit (Derrick De Marney) being chased across the countryside alongside an initially reluctant female lead (Nova Pilbeam, the kidnapped girl from The Man Who Knew Too Much having matured in the space of just two years), breathlessly manoeuvring from one stand out set piece to the next.
Politically correct or not, the final revelation of the real killer hiding amongst the performers of a Minstrel show is one hell of a sequence that clearly demonstrates Hitchcock’s visual mastery and expertise behind the camera.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) In retrospect it is surprising to see how political a lot of Hitchcock’s early masterpieces were. Most of his British thrillers have more than just a smattering of foreign intrigue in them and, though the rise of Fascism is never directly mentioned, it darkens the mood of those productions and adds more than just a tinge of paranoia to the proceedings. In actual fact most of Hitchcock’s pre-WWII movies in retrospect appear much darker and more political than his average wartime movie.
On top of viewing The Lady Vanishes as just another superb thriller set in the confines of a train moving through Europe, this production can also clearly be read as a running commentary to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. The character most closely representing the concept of “peace for our time” is played by Cecil Parker as a spineless, white flag waving coward who gets killed the moment he attempts to negotiate with the foreign agents. His character’s name revealingly enough is Todhunter (Tod = German for Death!).
Subtext or not, The Lady Vanishes is entertaining on oh-so-many levels and warrants and rewards repeat viewings to properly appreciate all of its subtleties.Jamaica Inn (1939)
Following his six masterful early thrillers his last production before moving to Hollywood was a switch in the genre and one of his few costume dramas. Jamaica Inn was the first of Hitchcock’s Daphne Du Maurier adaptations (later to be followed by Rebecca and The Birds) which bears more than just a striking semblance to certain parts of Russell Thorndike’s Dr Syn saga: a gang of Cornish smugglers terrorise the rural neighbourhood and are run by a respectable pillar of society, Sir Humphrey Pengallan, played by Charles Laughton who dominates the picture with his weirdly wonderful and over the top performance as the pompous, bumbling villain of the piece.
Hitchcock was said to have been very unhappy about being upstaged by the main star, though he was to direct him again later in The Paradine Case. Maureen O’Hara as a young Irish lass manages to save a very unheroic looking Leslie Banks from their clutches. Not a bad movie overall, but not exceptionally great either with few truly memorable scenes.
The quality of the prints in this set is acceptable and better than some of the public domain versions that have been around, though some occasional scratches and hisses are evident. Extras are a bit on the short side. Every film features an instructive, short introduction by Hitchcock biographer Charles Barr. Apart from that they all have image galleries plus one additional piece, primarily consisting of interviews with the master or snippets of old TV documentaries. Bar the occasional exception, trailers are conspicuously absent.
A number of the movies in this collection have already been available on DVD. All of those films are productions that any movie buff should be familiar with, so if you don’t have any in your collection yet, then this box set is a must-have. If on the other hand you do already own some of them, then it depends on how much you need the remaining ones or what the quality of your old prints was as the extras alone do not warrant an upgrade.