Downhill (1927)

Downhill (1927)

When we think of Hitchcock’s early work, we tend to focus on the thrillers, usually starting with The Lodger in 1927 and, skipping a number of films, onto movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. His other films from both the silent and sound eras generally get short shrift, representative, at best, of the building blocks of the Master’s career and little else. It’s rare for anyone to note the fact that Hitchcock made melodramas, adapted plays, comedies, and even a musical. And some of this inattention is because the films don’t easily fit into an auteurist model, but these films have floated around in bad public domain prints for years, their picture blurry, and sound (where there is sound) muddled. But thanks to FilmStruck and the Criterion Collection, we finally get a chance to see halfway decent prints of Hitchcock’s earliest available works, and discover that there was much more to the Master than his murderous masterpieces.

Downhill is only Hitchcock’s fifth credit as a director, and came out the same year as the far more famous The Lodger. It also stars Ivor Novello, here taking on the lead role as Roddy Berwick, a schoolboy who becomes entangled with Mabel (Annette Benson), a waitress at the school. Mabel is also having a fling with Roddy’s friend Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine), and arrives in the headmaster’s office and to accuse the wealthier Roddy of impregnating her. Roddy denies it but, knowing it’s Tim’s child, decides to take the blame. He’s promptly expelled from school and then from the home of his father Sir Thomas Berwick (Norman McKinnel), starting his “downhill” journey into poverty as he becomes an actor and later a gigolo.

On the surface, Downhill looks like a moral tale so beloved in the silent era, about avoiding fast women and loose morals. Certainly all of the hallmarks are there: we know that Mabel is a bad girl leading young men astray as she works several jobs, flirts with students, and wears far too much mascara. Roddy’s crime is not really his involvement with her, but his naiveté. He really is innocent and even honorable, at first—he refuses to expose Tim and get the latter kicked out of school. But Roddy ceases to be a victim as time goes on—after leaving home and becoming an actor to pay the bills, he comes into an inheritance from his godmother, which he promptly spends on marriage Julia (Isabel Jeans), who spends him into oblivion. His trajectory is more about his personal exploitation and naiveté than it is about any crimes he’s committed, but he’s far from innocent. He was involved with Mabel, even though he’s not the father of her child; he’s warned about Julia’s frivolity and affairs; he consistently turns to more disreputable ways of earning his money, although he never descends into crime. Roddy’s downward spiral is a version of feminine narrative, in which the girl goes from riches to rags, usually turning to prostitution. Roddy instead becomes an actor and then a gigolo, culminating in a nightmarish scene in a Parisian nightclub that should be seen as one of the finest in silent cinema.

Hitchcock’s style is very much in evidence here, especially the early influence of German Expressionism. Brief scenes, as when Roddy goes down into the Underground after being cast out from his father’s house, and again as his shadow casts across the stairs as he ascends to his apartment, recall images from Nosferatu and Metropolis, while the club scene owes a debt to The Last Laugh. There’s no doubt that this is a young filmmaker experimenting with what the camera and the frame can do, but there’s an assuredness to the images that reminds us that Hitchcock never used flourishes without a purpose. It’s all in service to the narrative, to telling a visual story through Roddy’s eyes. Most impressive is the use of POV shots, during a sequence in which Roddy sinks into delirium as he’s taken on board a ship. The camera stumbles down stairs, stares up at masts as the frame multiplies, and finally descends into hallucinogenic reveries as Roddy replays his experiences. The film largely lacks title cards, with large swathes of dialogue elided over in favor of information conveyed solely by the image. Novello’s performance likewise shows influence of Expressionism, as he casts his body against vaulted closet doors, or becomes slowly bowed as he sinks further into poverty. In such an otherwise dark narrative, it’s a pleasure to note that there’s a good bit of Hitchcockian humor on display, with visual jokes and sleight of hand that will become more developed over the course of his career.

But Downhill shouldn’t be viewed as an interesting footnote. It is deserves to be considered on its own merits, as a part of Hitchcock’s oeuvre that does not cleanly fit into the thriller model. This is a great director making a great film, not a fledgling director who will go on to great things. There’s genius here, and it belongs to Downhill.

Downhill is available to stream on FilmStruck

The Dynamics Of Voyeurism In Psycho And Phantom Thread

*Note: This is an analysis, not a review. There are spoilers for both Psycho and Phantom Thread. As I’ve only seen Phantom Thread once, this analysis may change over time. 

In a pivotal scene in Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson utilizes a visual reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho, drawing out the film’s Hitchcockian aspirations and establishing a parallel relationship between Alma/Woodcock and Marion/Norman. Alma has gone out to demonstrate her dress before Woodcock’s patrons, and Woodcock rushes to a peephole in one of the doors to watch her perform. The image of Woodcock’s eye lit by the peephole references a shot in Psycho, where Norman Bates watches Marion Crane undress through a secret peephole in the Bates Motel office. Woodcock’s visual association with Bates is not just a comment on him as psychopathic lover, but also an attempt to draw parallels between Woodcock’s act of voyeurism and Norman’s.

Norman’s act of voyeurism is presented as pathetic, a moment of perversion for a lonely young man. At the juncture in the narrative, the audience is unaware of Norman’s psychopathy and his behavior, while unnerving, is simply an act of voyeurism. What will happen to Marion is as yet unknown. As the camera takes Norman’s perspective, drawing close to the image of him at the peephole, the audience comes into visual sympathy with him – we see what he sees. The shot cuts to the image of Marion removing her clothes from Norman’s perspective, the frame edged with black as the camera mimics the view through the peephole. The reverse shot cut brings us into close-up with Norman’s eye, and then again cuts back to Marion as she moves toward the bathroom.

The act of voyeurism is not merely an act that Norman performs, but an act that the camera – and, by extension, the audience – performs with him. Pushed into sympathy with Norman whether we want to be or not, the audience is implicated in his act of voyeurism and all that it entails, up to and including the eventual murder. But Norman’s behavior is also tentative; his voyeurism slightly embarrassed, as though the act of looking is compulsive rather than wholly deliberate. What is more, he steps away from the peephole before Marion fully undresses—it is thwarted desire, perverted though it is, that compels him, and he doesn’t want to see it through to conclusion.

To look and be looked at returns again and again in Psycho, especially during the pivotal lead-up to the shower sequence, and the scene itself. When the camera gives us our first real glimpse of Mother, backlit by the sheer white of the bathroom, the shot is from Marion’s perspective. The peephole shot of Norman’s eyes recurs in its mirror image of Marion’s dead eye, the camera spiralling from it following her murder. Just as the audience has looked at Marion from Norman’s perspective, so do we see Mother from Marion’s, and finally ourselves, her eye looking back at us. The dynamic of looking and being looked at, and the violence and violation that is a part of the look, returns throughout the film, implicating the audience as well as the characters in its varieties of voyeurism and violation. (This scene, by the way, becomes even more complicated once we understand that Norman is Mother and that is it Norman’s initial act of voyeurism that eventually awakens “Mother’s” homicidal tendencies.)

Phantom Thread utilizes this dynamic as well, but the peephole shot here is one of the more blatant uses of another film’s imagery to draw the act of voyeurism into focus. Where Norman moves tentatively to observe Marion, Woodcock’s observation of Alma is breathless – he practically flings himself at the peephole, even though he’s standing in a room full of other models and seamstresses. Alma, meanwhile, is fully aware that Woodcock is looking at her. Unlike Marion, who is a passive and basically innocent victim (her greatest crime, vis a vis Norman, is trying to be sympathetic to him), Alma is a performer in her own objectification. However, the film does not therefore give her greater autonomy than Marion. She is performing as a model, and is therefore only present to be a passive object of the look. That Woodcock extends this objectification to his own form of rather sexless titillation further complicates the referentiality in using the peephole shot – he is looking, and the object of his gaze knows he is looking, and thus performs for him. But she also has no choice but to perform – she is a victim as well, because her professional role of a model enforces on her a passivity removes any choice that she might have. He will look and she will be looked at, no matter what. The way that Woodcock looks at her is not particularly a mark of his perversion, because that is literally her role.

The other marked difference in the shot as used in Phantom Thread is the lack of audience perspective/sympathy in conjunction with Woodcock’s voyeurism. Where Psycho forces the audience into visual complicity with Norman, including all that comes after, the audience is not forced to be complicit with Woodcock. He flings himself against the door, but the next image we see is not associated with Woodcock’s gaze. We briefly observe Alma returning his look as she glances at the door, knowing he’s watching her, but the camera itself does not take Woodcock’s perspective. The lack of POV distances the audience from the character, but also does not force us to interrogate our place in Woodcock’s voyeurism. His obsession, such as it is, is more an aesthetic one. While Norman’s vision is both intentionally titillating and intentionally disturbing, complicating the audience’s ethical standing in terms of the characters and in terms of the eventual murder and its solution, the scene in Phantom Thread makes no such demand of its viewers. Rather, Woodcock’s obsession forms a sort of aesthetic romance that the camera reinforces by declining to truly represent it as voyeurism. Where Hitchcock attempts to draw his audience into uncomfortable proximity with his obsessive character, Anderson allows the audience to remain distant and thus not particularly culpable. Looking and being looked at is a matter of aesthetic appreciation, not of perversion.

Yet Anderson chooses such a clear and deliberate reference to Psycho, in the midst of a film that is very much about looking and being looked at. This referentiality, while somewhat incoherent, is a mark of Anderson’s attempts to draw the viewer into the film vis a vis Hitchcock, to imply that we are, at least partially, to understand Woodcock’s relationship with Alma as having a corollary in Norman’s voyeurism. This is not particularly carried through to the rest of the narrative, however, and the Psycho reference gets lost in a pattern of referentiality and aesthetic fetishization. Phantom Thread’s treatment of voyeurism in general, and the presentation of the peephole shot specifically, avoids making the audience culpable in the interplay of dominance and submission, violation and control, that makes up so much of Phantom Thread’s narrative. We are asked to understand voyeurism from afar, to appreciate it aesthetically, and, much like Alma, to never really question our participation in it.

Bloody October: The Birds (1963)

The Birds (1963)


While this is the subject of some debate, it is my conviction that Alfred Hitchcock made only one “proper” horror film over the course of his long career. Psycho has often been cited as the first “slasher” film, but I don’t think it’s insane to argue that Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds wins the award for inarguable horror.

Tippi Hedren is Melanie Daniels, an apparently frivolous young ingenue who meets and flirts with Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco bird shop. Annoyed by Mitch’s teasing flirtation, Melanie purchases a set of lovebirds and heads to Mitch’s country home in Bodega Bay, to deliver the birds to his little sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright) for her birthday. There she meets the schoolteacher Annie Hayward (Suzanne Pleshette), and Mitch’s mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy), both major feminine forces in Mitch’s life.  The whole thing is really just an elaborate gag intended to pay Mitch back for his teasing, but things begin to get scary when Melanie is attacked by a seagull. It’s the harbinger of things to come, as the local birds begin attacking and killing humans. The inhabitants of Bodega Bay are eventually forced to hole up in their homes, securing themselves against the constant and apparently purposeless onslaught of avian forces.

Hitchcock spends the first half hour of The Birds establishing the characters, their relationships, and the tensions already underlying Melanie’s interaction with the Brenner family. Mitch’s mother in particular seems to suspect and dislike Melanie, but in an extended conversation with Annie, Melanie learns that it is not as cut and dry as, say, a grasping and jealous woman (words that immediately call to mind Psycho, of three years before). The tensions are more complex, and in some ways more realistic, than that. When the bird attacks do begin, the viewer senses some tenuous and wholly inexplicable connection between the motiveless violence, and the animosities between our human characters. How to define this becomes the question, and the film poses no easy answers.


Much of The Birds is about human reaction to purposeless violence. While certain things are established about the attacks – they come in waves, they stop for long intervals, they appear to be concerted attacks by large numbers of animals – there is no apparent purpose behind them. The birds have simply “gone mad,” but it is a universal madness affecting all of them – except for the two lovebirds in a cage. The violence is overwhelming and disturbing, but it is the mad tension, the waiting for something to happen, that truly gives the film its energy. As one ornithologist explains, if birds of a feather truly do flock together, there’s nothing human beings can do to stop them.

For a film made in 1963, the special effects in The Birds hold up rather well. Hitchcock’s camera never lingers for too long on a single animal, making it easier to combine real trained birds with puppets, animation, and even back projection to form a largely seamless horror story. I wish the same could be said for the performances. Although Tippi Hedren’s performance is affecting, she has an aloofness and distance that after awhile becomes grating and makes it difficult for the viewer to sympathize. The same must be said for Rod Taylor’s rather self-satisfied lawyer, who has as much sex appeal as a store mannequin. The strong secondary characters, however, make up for the moments when the leads drag down the dialogue – and Jessica Tandy’s multi-faceted job as Lydia Brenner is a study in restrained acting.


But the real stars here are the birds, and they’re really the ones we came to see. This is more than a “nature gone mad” story, so popular in the 1950s and 60s in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of the Atomic Age. The birds are not really mad, it seems. They know exactly what they’re doing, and that, more than anything human, is terrifying.

Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent


Alfred Hitchcock made some great and not-so-great films in his long career as the Master of Suspense. We often focus on his acclaimed “masterpieces” of suspense cinema: Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Rear Window – these are the films that many viewers think of when they think of Hitchcock. But Hitchcock was a director in his native Britain long before he came to America, and the films he made during that period sometimes exceed his later works in both humor and suspense.While some film lovers will know The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps, titles like Rich and Strange, Murder!, and Young and Innocent are routinely ignored. Some of this must have to do with the prevalence of public domain prints, which are often murky and imperfect reproductions of films that deserve much better. But Hitchcock’s British films contain not just the seeds of the style and themes that would come to fruition in his later American career; they are enjoyable, even brilliant works of cinema in their own right.

Young and Innocent opens with a stylized murder that we instantly recognize as Hitchcock. After an argument with her husband Guy (George Curzon), actress Christine’s (Pamela Carme) body is washed up on the beach below her home. She’s discovered by Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who runs off to get help only to be spotted by two young women. When the police arrive they claim that he was running away, and Robert is arrested for Christine’s murder. In the legal farce that follows, the police discover that not only did Robert know the dead woman, but he was also left a hefty sum of money in her will. What’s more, the dead woman was strangled with the belt of a raincoat that Robert claims he has lost. Realizing that he’ll get no justice without that coat. Robert  escapes from the courthouse just before his case is brought up, hiding out in the car of Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam), the Chief Constable’s (Percy Marmont) daughter. They begin a cross country chase to find Robert’s raincoat and prove that it was not his belt that strangled Christine.


Young and Innocent is the “wrong man” narrative that Hitchcock made a central theme almost from the very beginning of his career. His best known silent film The Lodger operates on the same principles of a falsely accused man who must prove his innocence to both the police and to the girl he loves. The plot brings into relief issues of the justice system –  often shown as ineffective at best – and the vagaries of human nature, as the hero finds help (and hindrance) in some of the oddest place. In the case of Young and Innocent, the audience has no doubt about the veracity of Robert’s story. Without being shown the murder itself, we are given enough information within the first few minutes of the film to determine that Robert had nothing to do with it; it was Christine’s husband Guy, the man with the nasty eye-twitch, that killed her. The crux of the plot then trades on Robert convincing Erica that he’s been falsely accused. It is her story, really, as she comes to maturity via her experience, and her growing conviction that Robert could not have committed the crime.

Erica is on the cusp of womanhood, but she still presides over her father’s table, playing both good daughter and mother to her four brothers. Robert represents adulthood, a mature love, and an implicit threat to the family’s status quo. Erica’s faith in him saves him, just as his gentleness with her hints at an adult world she has never quite touched. Pilbeam and De Marney are excellent together, the latter playing the wry and dashing Hitchcock hero to perfection. Pilbeam looks and acts every bit her age (she was also the young daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much),  yet manages also to fulfill some of the requirements of a strong Hitchcock heroine. She’s not a pushover and she’s not a victim. The youth of the two leads lends a lightness that might have been missing from older, more experienced actors – there is a sense of play in their friendship and then burgeoning romance, and an atmosphere of fun permeates their scenes together.


The comedy of Young and Innocent is its most endearing feature. The film contains an extended sequence making fun of the local police (and Scotland Yard), as Robert easily escapes from their clutches after a scene with his venal, incompetent lawyer, resulting in a madcap chase through the English countryside. An element of slapstick runs through the film: police officers are forced to ride in the back of a wagon “with the other pigs,” a child’s party interrupts Robert and Erica’s escape, and Erica causes a slapstick fight at a local truck stop as they try to locate Robert’s missing raincoat. Hitchcock had an innate sensibility and love for British society of all classes, and Young and Innocent is full of British character types, each both endearing and grotesque in their own ways. The most enjoyable of these is Old Will (Edward Rigby), who provides a crucial clue to the identity of the murderer and Robert’s salvation. He’s an endearing character who makes the film even more pleasurable to watch.

This is a Hitchcock movie, though, and Hitchcock movie means at least one feat of camerawork that we might not expect. There are any number of excellently shot and framed scenes throughout Young and Innocent, but the most obvious and influential “Hitchcockian” moment must be the crane shot nearing the end of the film. It begins in a hotel lobby, swoops slowly over a group of dancing couples in a ballroom, down over their heads and to the band playing at the front, coming to rest finally on the twitching eyes of the drummer, whom we know from the start is the real killer. The entire sequence is a single shot, but you almost miss the brilliance of the camerawork until after the fact. If all Young and Innocent had to recommend it was that single shot, it would be enough.

Young and Innocent is less solid than The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes, and only hints at some of the greatness that will come along in Hitchcock’s later masterpieces. But it is a light, joyful film, entertaining without being challenging, and with enough depth of plot and characterization that you come away feeling both lightened and intrigued by the outcome. It is a comedic film, but with an undercurrent that acknowledges the seriousness of its subject. Young and Innocent is a work of light, even in the midst of darkness. As Robert says: “I can laugh, because I know I’m innocent.”

Foreign Correspondent (1940)


When we discuss the pantheon of great Hitchcock films, we very rarely mention his 1940 war comedy-thriller Foreign Correspondent. There’s good reason for that: in comparison with the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Foreign Correspondent occupies a lesser category and could be blocked in with such films as Stage Fright, Saboteur, and Dial M For Murder. But even the worst of Hitchcock’s films have something to be said for them, and Foreign Correspondent is a far cry from being the worst. It is neither a great film nor a bad one, neither wholly successful nor a round failure. It has just enough hidden in its depths to make it intriguing, without ever quite making it great.

Foreign Correspondent features Joel McCrea as the titular correspondent Johnny Jones, who in the first few scenes changes his name to Huntley Haverstock and becomes the foreign correspondent for the New York Globe. Jones’s editor Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) send our hero to Europe to drum up some “real news” about the European situation. Once in London, Jones encounters Mr. Van Meer (Albert Bassermann, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role), a Dutch diplomat who has been trying to keep the peace in Europe. When Van Meer disappears during a luncheon thrown by Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the head of a united peace organization, Jones becomes embroiled in European politics and the machinations of a shadowy group bent on advancing the European war machine and obtaining vital secret information. Things are further complicated with Jones’s burgeoning romance with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day) and the timely appearance of fellow newspaperman Scott ffolliett (George Sanders).

The first twenty minutes of Foreign Correspondent play like a wartime screwball comedy, beginning with the re-christening of Jones as Haverstock because his editor doesn’t like his name. Jones encounters Van Meer in a taxi on the way to the luncheon (the film’s MacGuffin, actually), but the political issues are promptly superseded by the adorable love/hate relationship that quickly develops between Jones and Carol. In fact, for much of the film’s opening act we see very little of that so-called Hitchcockian touch, with scenes that might have been shot by Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges. It’s a perfectly entertaining opening, but we’re all waiting for something important to happen.


The important event turns out to be the apparent assassination of Van Meer on the steps of a conference building in Holland. The scene has that Hitchcockian feeling, as a beautiful crane shot over a sea of umbrellas establishes an immediate sense of foreboding. That same sea of umbrellas impedes Jones’s pursuit of the assassins through the streets, as bullets fly and at least one innocent bystander loses his life. Jones eventually springs into a car that contains Carol and Scott ffolliett (that’s two small f’s), and a chase through the Dutch countryside ensues. The rightly praised sequence involving a windmill and the uncovering of at least part of the villains’ scheme finally convinces the audience that, yes, we are watching a Hitchcock film. It’s a tense series of events, punctuated by humor from both Sanders and McCrea, and the well-known “Hitchcockian Blot” of a windmill turning against the wind.

From there, the film moves along at a strong pace, mixing the screwball romance with some recognizable “Hitchcockian” set pieces, each grander and more tension-filled than the last. Foreign Correspondent actually has more in common with Hitchcock’s British work than it does with his more famous American movies. The slow-burning screwball opening recalls The Lady Vanishes, while moments of humor provided by British and American character actors highlight moments of tension. Jones is an All-American hero lost in the morass of European politics that he either cannot or does not want to understand – a bit of a change from the stolid British types of Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps.


The cast of Foreign Correspondent is an excellent one. McCrea and Sanders set each other off perfectly, a meeting of nationalities attitudes that never veer into caricature. McCrea is a forthright hero with a good heart and a rather narrow vision of politics (his very American “let’s have a showdown” is repeated enough times for it to be taken ironically). But McCrea is a good enough actor to play the part of Jones with a lightness that never becomes silly, and a concern for humanity that supersedes his more naive aspects. His passion for Carol is genuine, as is his desire to tell the truth about what’s happening in Europe, if he can ever figure it out. Meanwhile, Sanders as Scott ffolliett is the unsung hero of the picture, occupying centre-stage for much of the latter part of the film after the director has apparently grown tired with his young lovers. ffolliett is one of Sanders’s most sympathetic and complex roles; yet another proof that Sanders was a very good actor when he put his mind to it.

Herbert Marshall occupies the difficult role of Fisher with a dash of charm and earnestness that we might not expect, his smoothness both charming and suspect from the start. Albert Bassermann’s Van Meer is the philosophical center of the film, a diplomat desperate to keep the peace and recognizing all too well that he shall fail. Laraine Day might come off as a touch too earnest and forgiving, and she has none of the strength of character we usually see in the best Hitchcock heroines, but she’s far from a poor actress and her character, while undemanding, provides a consistent lightness in the midst of the dark that permeates the second half of the film. The all-too-brief appearance of Edmund Gwenn, playing against type as a vile assassin, provides one of the film’s greatest sequences.


If Foreign Correspondent does not come off, it’s largely due to a confusion of plot and tone. While Hitchcock regularly blended light comedy with thriller, Foreign Correspondent fails to follow through on some of its promise. The film has several climaxes, and what’s at stake for Jones et al. is not always clear, as though the situation in Europe became more important as the film was being made. The immediacy of the propaganda aspect means that the film becomes heavy-handed with its message, and Jones and Carol become too representative of the earnest young couple trying to survive in a world gone mad.  Several speeches evidently inserted for propagandist effect appear a bit overwrought to modern eyes.

That being said, there are so many wonderful and truly spectacular cinematic moments in this film, it’s a shame that the whole does not perfectly hang together. The scenes at the windmill and at the peace conference I’ve already mentioned; there is also a tense sequence atop a cathedral that perfectly demonstrates Hitchcock’s ability to generate audience suspense. The final sequence aboard an airliner makes for one of Hitchcock’s most visceral, intense moments, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Foreign Correspondent was made in 1940 and released at the beginning of the Battle of Britain. As such, it is indeed a masterpiece of propaganda – such a masterpiece, in fact, that it received praise from Joseph Goebbels, who remarked that it “will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.” The film ends with a call to America, to realize just what is going on in Europe and to take steps to stop the “lights from going out” all over the world. It has a immediacy to it only present in the best films of the period, a sense that the outcome is uncertain and that war, for America as well as for Europe, is imminent.




The Inessentials: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)


I first saw The Man Who Knew Too Much on a cheaply produced VHS tape that included a good three-quarters of Hitchcock’s British films.  The sound was scratchy, at points indecipherable, the picture grainy and the black and white so contrasted that it was difficult to identify characters without squinting.  I was, to put it mildly, unimpressed, and I more or less forgot about the film, choosing instead to pay attention to the Hitchcocks – most of them from his American period – that I could actually get in good prints.

Thank God for the Criterion Collection.  After gifting me with The Lady Vanishes – a film that reignited my love of Hitchcock and gave me fodder for three graduate papers – and The 39 Steps, they’ve finally fixed The Man Who Knew Too Much and released it on Blu-ray.  Beautiful picture, clear soundtrack, all of the glory of Hitchcock’s British work, up there on the screen.  Finally.  It’s like watching a completely different film.

The Man Who Knew Too Much stands as the only Hitchcock film that Hitchcock himself remade, in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in the roles originally occupied by Leslie Banks and Edna Best.  The plot is basically the same: vacationing family becomes friends with a man who is subsequently murdered, but not before he can pass on the details of an assassination attempt to them.  To stop them from talking, the baddies kidnap their child (in the original a little girl played by Nova Pilbeam, who would later be a Hitchcock heroine in Young and Innocent).  The conflict lies in the couple trying to decide if the life of a foreign diplomat – and a possible war – is worth the life of their daughter.The-Man-Who-Knew-Too-Much-1934-2

That’s where the parallels between the two films end, however.  I have to say that the original is far and away the better film.  At a punchy 75 minutes, it wastes no time setting up the situation, or the audience’s sympathies.  A few well-placed and economical scenes give us all we need to know – the affection between the parents, the affection between the parents and their daughter, the cost of their silence, and the cruelty of the villains.  There are some truly Hitchcockian set pieces, as the father sets out, in the company of the comic relief Uncle Clive, to find his daughter based solely on an address.  The scene in the dentist’s office must have inspired Marathon Man among others.  It’s a surreal, comical and sinister side-note, to go with the far more serious sequence in a cultish church (The Tabernacle of the Sun, in which old British grandmothers carry around firearms) as the father fights his way to his daughter, only to be captured.  And then there’s the excellent Albert Hall scene, a masterpiece of intercuts, and the final shoot-out.  The whole film is perfectly tailored without sacrificing plot or character.  Coming in at just over an hour, it’s an example of what can be done by a truly great filmmaker.  Any director who thinks they need 2.5 hours to tell a good story should take note.  The Man Who Knew Too Much represents some of the best of Hitchcock’s early work, and that’s saying a lot.

peter lorre man who knew too muchThen there’s Peter Lorre.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was his first English-speaking role – he learned his lines phonetically – but you wouldn’t know it.  He brings the same weird, sadistic vibe that he used with such aplomb in Fritz Lang’s M, but without the sympathetic undertones.  He’s a villain, through and through, and more than that enjoys the suffering he causes.  Yet there are moments of pathos, as when one of his compatriots dies during the shootout, or his humorous introduction.  Leslie Banks anchors the film with a stolid sense of Britishness, honesty and fair play; Lorre provides the chaos.

The film does not hold up as well as The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps, widely acknowledged as the best of British Hitchcock.  It’s very sparseness sometimes works against it, leaving certain plot elements under-developed while spending a little too much time on getting characters from point A to point B.  It’s a little rough around the edges, which provides some charm but also a somewhat perfunctory feel.  I found myself longing for a little more emotion on the part of the father – at least earlier on.

But these are minor quibbles in an excellent film.  The Man Who Knew Too Much outstrips its remake in every sense.  It’s a taut, clever masterpiece, finally presented by Criterion in the way it must be seen.

Oh, and the mother? Screw Doris Day; Edna Best wins every time.


The Inessentials: Jamaica Inn

I watch way too much TCM.  Being without a regular 9-5 job, I have that luxury.  And I’m grateful to TCM, I really am.  They’ve kept me interested in classical films.  But I’m a tad bothered by the nightly show they call The Essentials.  Because watching it the other night, I was struck by the fact that they were showing Some Like it Hot for the umpteenth time.  Not that I don’t love Some Like It Hot — I do, it’s hilarious and thoughtful and one of the first films to make it acceptable for a man to marry another man — but rather that there are other films I would consider ‘Essential’.  How about some love for those movies that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of play? The movies that TCM shows at 2:00 a.m. and only the truly die-hard would, say, actively set their VCRs for when they were fifteen years old and madly in love with Basil Rathbone?

So here we go.  I’m going to start posting about films that, for whatever reason, don’t get a lot of love.  Yes, I’m into classical cinema, but I’m not ruling out contemporary films that I feel have been passed over.

Let’s start with one of my favorites.  Alfred Hitchcock’s criminally (probably a strong word) underrated Jamaica Inn.  

First, a little history.  Jamaica Inn is based (very loosely) on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, and is the first du Maurier adaptation Hitchcock attempted (the other two being Rebecca, and The Birds).  It was also Hitch’s last British film before he departed for America and what many consider to be his glory days of Notorious, Rear Window, and Vertigo.  I may be among the few that am more interested in Hitchcock’s British period than his American one.  While many of the films do not stack up against the sheer brilliance of Psycho or Notorious, they are largely a charming, fascinating set of pictures.  They exhibit Hitchcock’s intimate understanding of Britain and British life.  His secondary characters are better painted and there is a sense of affection and critique that runs through films like The Thirty Nine Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes.  But back to Jamaica Inn. 

The movie stars Maureen O’Hara (in her first major role), Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks and Robert Newton.  The plot is fairly basic: O’Hara is Mary, going to Jamaica Inn on the Cornish coast to live with her aunt Patience after the death of her parents.  Little does she know that Jamaica Inn is a den of smugglers and wreckers (men who drive ships onto the rocks and then plunder them), run by her uncle Joss (Banks).  In the process, Mary meets the Squire Pengallen (Laughton), who is just all kinds of charming creepiness, and saves the life of Jem Trehearne (Newton, swoon-worthy), one of the smugglers.  All hell breaks loose as Mary attempts to escape the wreckers and help her aunt.

Charles Laughton's eyebrows, with Charles Laughton.

The plot deviates entirely from that of the novel, so we’ll leave the differences aside.  Laughton is the big name here, so he’s the one that takes center stage.  Pengallen, we very quickly learn (so this is not spoiling a damned thing), is the true leader of the wreckers, living off of them to keep himself in the pink as befits landed gentry.  Laughton plays him as a grotesque; a massive, trundling gentleman in overdone 18th century garb, with the most magnificent set of eyebrows ever committed to celluloid.  He’s frightening, fascinating, and just this side of hammy.  His weird obsession with Mary rapidly becomes disturbing, particularly when we reach the denouement.  He’s a grand Hitchcockian villain, equal parts fascinating and repugnant.  What I like most about Laughton’s performance (which some feel is way too over the top to be believable) is how humorous he is, right up to becoming sinister.  It’s easy to laugh at this overweight peacock, with his leering gaze and posh accent, until his more violent, cruel nature comes out.  He’s threatening but, like Mary, we never quite know it until it’s too late.

Maureen O’Hara wins the award for being one of the toughest Hitchcock heroines, and a perfect argument against those who believe that Hitchcock only let women be victims.  She’s one of two women in the entire film.  When she arrives at Jamaica Inn, alone and in the middle of a storm, she is immediately set upon by her uncle Joss.  But Mary, far from being threatened, responds in kind.  She refuses to be cowed, not by Joss, not by Pengallen, nor the nasty smugglers, nor even the charming rogue who ultimately turns out to be not so roguish.  She’s quick spoken and pro-active, and although her and Newton don’t get nearly the amount of charming banter that, say, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave have in The Lady Vanishes, she holds her own against Laughton quite nicely.

Robert Newton takes unfair advantage of being passed out.

Which brings me to Robert Newton, whom I personally find incredibly appealing as Jem Trehearne.  He’s a hero that only makes an appearance nearly half an hour into the film, and then in not the most flattering of lights: he’s a member of the gang, appears to be stealing from them and nearly gets himself hung as a result.  Only through Mary’s timely intervention is he saved.  Newton has a swash-buckling air that would serve him well in his elder years when he played Long John Silver; but the difference between the handsome young man here and the swaggering old pirate in Treasure Island is night and day.  He acquits himself well in the developing relationship with Mary, and seems to be positively giddy when he’s in the same room with Laughton (they were friends in real life and it shows).

The secondary characters exhibit Hitchcock’s usual flair for the grotesque.  The wreckers are a band of nasty, amusing cutthroats, all played by excellent British character actors.  Emlyn Williams (there’s no reason you should know him unless you like old British films, but he’s a dandy) is Harry, one of the more charming, swaggering and dangerous of the band.

The problem with Jamaica Inn is mostly due to Charles Laughton, who struts in and takes over just about every scene he appears in.  Jamaica Inn is, at base, a melodrama and Laughton at times seems to be making it into a farce.  It has been argued that much of the tension of the film vanishes when we realize that Pengallen is the head of the wreckers.  However, in its defense, I would argue that Hitchcock deals with this aspect quite well.  By revealing Pengallen as a nasty piece of work almost from the beginning, the viewer is placed in a position of knowing more than the characters, a favorite device of Hitch’s.  This allows the viewer to focus on the development of the adventure, the relationship between Jem and Mary, and the danger they are placed in by not possessing this piece of vital information.   Far from disabling the film, this knowledge expands the tension as we watch the machinations of Pengallen to conceal his identity, as well as his gradual descent into madness.

I would never argue for the inclusion of Jamaica Inn in a best-of Hitchcock list, and it is certainly not his best British feature, or even close to it.  It has great difficulties as a film; some of the scenes feel weirdly short, and the characters at times seem to be talking past each other.  But it is entertaining for what it is, an interesting development of the thematics of Hitchcock’s British work (the wrong man motif, the powerful woman, questioning of authority, etc.), and some excellent performances.  For my money, it’s a better way to spend your afternoon than trying to sit through Under Capricorn, which has received more critical attention and is duller than a dust mop.

*The entirety of Jamaica Inn can be watched here.  Watch out for any DVD versions besides the Kino edition.  The Laserlight one cuts out about 8 minutes of pretty essential exposition.