Hitchcock-a-thon: Juno and the Paycock (1929)

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Of all the films under Hitchcock’s belt up by 1929, Juno and the Paycock might be his most impenetrable for modern audiences. Yes, even more so than his two hour silent rural comedy.

A lot of this comes from immediate technical problems. The film used ridiculously cheap sound equipment so there’s muffled speech and droning background static throughout. Combine that with some questionable “Irish” accents and you’ve got audio as rough as a badger’s arse.

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No one does glares like the Irish

But the most off-putting element in Paycock is the pacing. Hitchcock was a huge fan of Seán O’Casey’s original play and wanted to adapt it as faithful as possible, often running directorial decisions past O’Casey to make sure he was happy. Hitch’s loyalty is commendable, but his attachment to the source material ultimately holds the film back. It unfolds like a filmed stage play, rather than a movie. The thrilling visual language we’ve seen in Hitch’s silent films (and Blackmail) is abandoned and we’re left with an inert and “wordy” one-room drama.

But once your ears have stopped bleeding and you ease in to the slow pace you’ll uncover an engaging story. In the slums of Dublin at the height of the Irish Civil War we follow the struggles of the Boyle family: Juno (Sara Allgood), her two children Mary (Kathleen O’Regan) and Johnny (John Laurie) and her husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman) who’s nicknamed the peacock – or “paycock” – on account of his vanity and uselessness.

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He even has to concentrate to drink tea

When the family starts to tear apart the film reaches a shockingly bleak – almost nihilistic – conclusion. Allgood nails her final heart-wrenching monologue and it makes for an impactful send-off. It’s a fitting ending to a highly ideological film dealing with issues of national loyalty, the scars of guilt and the terrifying judgement of a devout Catholic society.

Despite these meaty topics, Paycock fails to utilize the inbuilt differences between film and theatre. It’s best to approach it as a venture into new territory since Hitchcock would later discover how to “translate” plays into films with Dial M For Murder and Rope.

An interesting early attempt, but as the great director later admitted in his famous interview with François Truffau, Juno and the Paycock has “nothing to do with cinema.”

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Well I don’t know what y’all so happy about

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Blackmail (1929)

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“See and hear it – our Mother Tongue as it should be…Spoken!”

So declared the posters for Blackmail, the first ever British talkie. However, it began life as a silent film. Half-way through production the studio asked Hitchcock to re-shoot key scenes to include sound. The finished product is a landmark collision of the silent and talkie eras.

Hitchcock included many scenes with fast edits and atmospheric montages to accommodate for silent screenings, while other scenes are designed to show off the capabilities of recorded sound. Cars honk, glass shatters, pianos are played, characters whistle and there’s even some singing.  It’s like the early RealD 3D movies of mid 2000s that took every opportunity throw something towards the screen. If you were a moviegoer in 1929 this was fucking awesome.

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But not as awesome as this shot

Straight off the back of The Manxman, Czech actress Anny Ondra stars as Alice, the bubbly girlfriend of police detective Frank (John Longden). She ditches him at a restaurant to secretly liaise with a suave artist (Cyril Ritchard). Things take a horrific turn as he tries to force himself on her and, in the heat of the moment, she stabs him to death.

Her boyfriend, refreshingly unjudgemental of Alice’s previously flirtatious relationship with the artist, now protects her from a cigar-puffing ex-convict (Donald Calthrop) who suspects her of murder and wants to exploit it to his advantage.

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The knife gives it away

Although Ondra is the only actress officially credited, the character of Alice was actually voiced by Joan Barry who dubbed in all of the lines live on set, since Hitchcock feared audiences would find Ondra’s accent difficult to understand and sound technology was still too primitive for non-diegetic editing. This leads to a few disjointed moments, but in general both actresses do a superb job.

Their collective talents are most impressive during the attempted rape scene. Alice’s terror is frighteningly well expressed, both through the visuals and audio, as he grasps her repeating “Don’t be silly, don’t be silly.” Once her attacker lies dead she becomes quiet, slow and quivering – devastated by what she did and what was nearly done to her. It’s intense and deeply unsettling.

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I never liked clowns

The film drags for the last half hour as the blackmailer tries to have his wicked way. Hitchcock would later realise with Strangers on a Train that a this kind of story works best if the threat builds over a long time. Blackmail takes place over only 24 hours. Regardless, it’s one of Hitchcock more morally complex films with enough intensity to it to forgive the clumsier moments.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Manxman (1929)

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Another silent Hitchcock, another love triangle. Once again starring Carl Brisson. Hitchcock later dismissed it as “a very banal picture.” I’m not going to call him wrong about his own movie but…he’s wrong. In my opinion, it’s actually one of his strongest films from the silent era.

Set in a small village on the Isle of Man, Kate (Anny Ondra) promises her love to a chipper fisherman called Pete (Brisson) shortly before he leaves for Africa to make his fortune. While he’s gone he asks his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen) to take care of her. But a forbidden love starts to blossom and when Pete returns to ask Kate for her hand in marriage, it’s only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces.

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Until then, she has something else in her face

In many ways, The Manxman feels like a cross between two Hitchcock films: the love triangle story from The Ring mixed with the theme of regretting promises from The Pleasure Garden. But The Manxman is better than both of them.

While, in terms of cinematography, The Ring is still Hitchcock’s greatest ’20s achievement – the characters and story are stronger here. In The Ring the audience were clearly intended to sympathise with ‘One-Round’ Jack; Bob Corby was his obstacle to overcome and Mabel was his prize to be won.

But the lead characters in The Manxman are more nuanced than that. All three of them are likeable and we don’t want anyone to come away hurt, even though it’s almost unavoidable. Ondra is enthralling as Kate, making it impossible not to side with her on any decision she makes. Keen gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a man falling in love despite himself and poor old Pete is so naïve and trusting that he can’t see what’s happening right under his nose.

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Like…RIGHT under his damn nose

The film ends on a beautifully melancholic note and it’s hard to know exactly how we’re meant to feel. As well as these gripping character dynamics we’re also treated to some gorgeous craggy scenery and some niffy love-triangle imagery. My personal favourite is the opening shot of the three-legged Isle of Man flag, setting the location but also introducing the thematic symbolism.

The Manxman is an emotionally engaging film. Compelling, suspenseful and a fitting swansong for Hitchcock’s silent classics.

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Farewell

 

Hitchcock-a-thon: Champagne (1928)

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“So…what happened in this movie again?”

I found myself asking this less than half an hour after watching Champagne. Hitchcock later wrote off the film as one of the worst in his whole career. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s actively awful, but it’s a total snoozefest.

The ever feisty Betty Balfour plays a spoiled rich young woman who, in the opening scene, crashes her father’s plane in the Atlantic Ocean just to get to a boat party. Tony Stark would be proud. This time she’s pushed paternal dependence to the limit and her millionaire Dad (played by Gordon Harker in his third and final collaboration with Hitch) pretends he’s gone bankrupt in order to teach her a lesson about responsibility.

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Peek-a-boo

And….uh…other stuff happens, I guess. I dunno, it’s hard to remember.

Hmm…

There’s the first ever freeze-frame in cinema. That’s pretty cool.

Um. What else…?

I will say that Balfour makes for an exceptionally fun protagonist, exhibiting her chirpy sense of humour with plenty of cheeky side glances. Even in the early stages where she’s careless and inconsiderate she still seems like she’d be a blast to have at a party. And when she learns her of her family’s “bankruptcy” her immediate reaction is to go out to sell all her jewellery and try to get a job. No moping or whining or complaining – just enthusiasm.

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While other folk try to look down her top

In a way, this works to the film’s disadvantage. I didn’t care whether or not she “learned her lesson” by the end because, to be honest, I always enjoyed Balfour’s company right from the start. Hell, at least she knows how to have a good time.

The same can’t be said of her disapproving boyfriend played Jean Bradin. Like all other characters in the film, he’s not given a name but I’ve taken the liberty of calling Blandy McKilljoy.

As for the rest of the cast, Gordon Harker is passably funny now he’s, thank God, toned things down since The Farmer’s Wife. And there’s a pompous club manager who looks like a cross between the Go Compare guy and a convicted sex criminal.

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Go Compare my balls

And there’s also…um…

Which movie was I talking about?

Hitchcock-a-thon: Easy Virtue (1928)

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One of Britain’s greatest directors takes on a drama by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights. It should be a recipe for success. How is it the completed film is so…tedious? Let’s back up a bit. Easy Virtue is a loose adaptation of a 1924 Noël Coward play concerned with a classic Hitchcock theme – hypocritical, self-righteous society. We’re in Downhill territory again, folks.

We begin in a courtroom detailing the divorce of our heroine Larita (Isabel Jeans) from her abusive husband and Alan Rickman doppelganger Mr. Filton (Franklin Dyall).

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I can’t be the only one who sees this

Accusations of infidelity are brought against her and the jury buys into it. Once the case is over she flees to the south of France to escape the scandal. There she meets John (played by our old friend Robin Irvine), a rich young man who soon falls for her in a whirlwind romance. They marry, and head back to England to meet John’s dreadfully snobbish family. It’s only a matter of time until her marriage from the past threatens her reputation in the present.

The film has serious pacing issues. After the initial set-up in the courtroom, there’s only a few moments of interest for the next hour or so; such as an inspired transition from France to England represented by cutting from a poodle to a bulldog or an oddly touching scene where we learn about John and Larita’s marriage proposal through the comical gawks of an eavesdropping switchboard operator.

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“Oh no he DIDN’T!”

Things pick in the last twenty minutes as Larita finally snaps and refuses to take anyone else’s shit. Jeans transforms the character into a firecracker, spitting out glorious put-downs to those who cause her offense.

“In our world we do not understand this code of easy virtue,” announces her haughty Mother-in-Law. “In your world you understand very little of anything, Mrs. Whittaker,” Larita responds. Zing!

“Have you had as many lovers as they say?”  “Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me.” Zing zing!

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Smack down, mothafucka

This final act houses the Coward-esque witticisms so absent from the rest of the film. It also ends on a sombre note which serves as a sympathetic and thought-provoking commentary on the 1920s equivalent to slut-shaming. But it’s too little too late. We have to sit through sixty minutes of very little happening before we get to anything interesting. The final result is a film that feels much longer than it actually is. Never a good sign.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

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The Farmer’s Wife might be the lightest film of Hitchcock’s entire career. It is a simple, amiable romantic comedy that trots along with no urgency, taking it’s time to enjoy the view.

After the death of his wife and the marriage of his only child, Mr. Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) begins to feel lonesome and resolves to find a new bride. “A female or two be floatin’ around in my mind like the smell of a Sunday dinner,” as he puts it.

His supportive housekeeper, Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis), helps him compile a list of eligible singletons ready for courtship. Hall-Davis turns in a more delicate performance than her previous collaboration with Hitchcock in The Ring and gives Minta buckets of likability. Sadly, this proved to be one of her last film roles. Her career didn’t survive the shift to the talkie era and she committed suicide in 1933 after a nervous breakdown.

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A tragic loss

The subjects of Sweetland’s romantic pursuits are unflattering spinster stereotypes, but it plays out with tongue-in-cheek comic absurdity, rather than the bitter cruelty we saw in Downhill. But even if these caricatures aren’t mean-spirited, they’re still not funny. Apart from one inspired scene with a manic jelly.

If there are chuckles to be had they comes from Thomas’s performance as Mr. Sweetland who’s twitching moustache and eyebrow raises make for some amusing mannerisms while not letting them become over-the-top.

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Well….mostly

But I’d be lying if I said any of comedy had me on the floor. Especially Gordon Harker’s wacky, gurning handyman, Churdles, who is far more tiresome than funny. Unless you really, really like gurning.

Where the film does have appeal is in its rustic, melancholic tone that underpins the shenanigans. The scene where Mr. Sweetland gazes wistfully at his late wife’s empty seat, brushing the remnants of confetti from his daughter’s wedding off his jacket, has real poignancy.

It’s a gentle, slow-moving film that stretches the story and characters too thin for its running time, but has an endearing charm. While not in the least bit suspenseful or even particularly funny, I found myself warming to it.

And how can you top that ridiculously cute dog from Pleasure Garden? Two ridiculously cute dogs:

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I CAN’T STAND IT, IT’S TOO ADORABLE

Hitchcock-a-thon: Downhill (1927)

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Reunited with leading man Ivor Novello (who also penned the original stage play), Hitchcock gives us a tale of false accusation and the loss of innocence with Downhill.

There’s also a bit where Novello takes his top off to appeal to the teenage girl fanbase. No, I’m serious. He was a huge sex symbol. The Ryan Gosling of his day.

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Women got their ankles all kinds of naked for him

This sexy lump of man-meat plays Roddy, a schoolboy who’s best friend Tim (Robin Irvine) knocks up their mutual friend Mabel (Annette Benson). Shockingly, she falsely names Roddy as the father-to-be because she thinks his rich family can provide for the unborn child better than Tim’s. Not wanting his pal’s Oxford scholarship chances to go down the drain, Roddy takes the bullet. He’s immediately expelled and cast out by his parents. Now he has to make his own way in the world and I’ll let you guess how well that goes…

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“I’m tripping balls, bro”

It may be lacking in murders, but Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s bleakest films. Polite society is depicted as untrusting, uncaring and unrewarding, particularly when it comes to the women, all of whom betray Roddy’s trust in some vile and deceptive way. There’s also an especially mean-spirited “old-spinster” stereotype towards the end. For anyone already put off by examples of misogyny in Hitchcock’s works, Downhill isn’t for you.

Novello, well into his 30s, isn’t going to convince anyone he’s a schoolboy but he sinks his teeth into the emotional range of his role with aplomb. He makes a believable journey from bushy-tailed rapscallion to a broken, haunted man the likes of which we saw him play in The Lodger. Speaking of familiar, Ian Hunter makes a return as another love rival. Sleazier this time. And he sneezes on a toy dog. Sleazier and sneezier.

Downhill is one of Hitchcock’s clunkier films. Symbols of “descent” are pushed to a breaking point, the villainesses are crude caricatures and the final resolution is absurdly quick and easy. There are a couple of truly stand-out moments such as the accusation in the headmaster’s study which is a master class in How To Inject Tension Into Your Scene. On its own, it may be one of the most suspenseful moments on Hitch’s resume so far. It’s a shame the rest of the movie goes downhill (ho ho) from there.

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Well that escalated quickly