Hitchcock-a-thon: Jamaica Inn (1939)

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With the overseas critical and box office success of The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, Hollywood offers were flooding in. After visiting LA Hitchcock finally accepted a seven-year deal with Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick. There was time for one last British film before he left. Unfortunately, the finished product proved to be a step back in style to his sub-par films of the early ‘30s.

On the rocky coasts of Cornwall, in the early 1800s, a ruthless gang of smugglers lure ships to their doom and pilfer what they can find from the wrecks. Their hideout is Jamaica Inn owned by gang member Joss (Leslie Banks) and his wife, Patience (Marie Ney). Patience’s niece, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), comes to live with her aunt in the suspicious inn. Jamaica? No, she went of her own accord. Ho ho! Actually it’s because her mother died. Oh. Awkward.

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I…I’m sorry for your loss

After saving the life of Traherne (Robert Newton), an undercover law-officer, they seek the help of the magistrate Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Charles Laughton). Little do they know that Sir Humphrey is the villainous mastermind behind the gang.

Jamaica Inn is a feeble film. Uninteresting heroes, bland dialogue and a story almost entirely lacking in drama. The only potential enjoyment to be had is with Laughton’s ridiculously camp performance. The man knows how to chew the shit out of the scenery.

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Actually, he chews a lot of things

Many of the problems came from the production history. Though Hitchcock got on well with Laughton on a personal level, his dual role as star and producer meant they often clashed professionally. Hitchcock had wanted to reveal Sir Humphrey as the true villain towards the end of film, but Laughton demanded more screen time so it’s learned very early on – even given away on the film’s posters. A change which Hitchcock called “completely absurd”. But his hands were tied.

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Geddit?

Jamaica Inn ended up a surprise box office hit, but was berated by the critics. Not that Hitch cared. He was Hollywood-bound. Jamaica Inn lasts as a sad blip in his five year winning streak.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Every time I watch The Lady Vanishes it feels like reminiscing with an old friend. The kind of friend I want to introduce to everyone I know because everyone deserves to know someone this delightful. Yes, I suppose if you wanted to you could point out all the niggling plot inconsistencies. To me, it’s perfect. I don’t love The Lady Vanishes. I am in love with The Lady Vanishes.

Set in an “undiscovered corner” of Europe, a group of British tourists board a homeward bound train after a night in an overcrowded hotel. Moments before the train leaves, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) receives a blow on the head from a falling flower pot and is helped to her carriage by a kindly old governess, Miss Froy (Dame May Witty).

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Dame, gurl!

After chatting over some tea, Iris falls asleep. When she wakes, Miss Froy is gone. And everyone on the train denies ever seeing her. Did the bump on her noggin give her a memory lapse? Or are there more sinister forces at work? Determined to find her new friend, Iris teams up with an effortlessly charming musician, Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave), to get to the bottom of the mystery.

While our heroes’ investigation digs up some neat surprises first time around, it’s the strength of the characters that lends the film to many repeat viewings. Lockwood and Redgrave sparkle as the leads. They have some of the best comic/erotic banter out of all the Hitchcock lead couples.

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I would marry both of them if I could

All the secondary characters are also superb, but special mention needs to be made of Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) – two cricket-obsessed Englishmen, whose deadpan delivery easily makes them a wonderfully funny pairing. In fact, the characters were so popular they were written in to three unrelated films in the early ‘40s.

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Did someone say “slash fic”?

The Lady Vanishes doesn’t have the psychological complexity of later Hitchcock masterpieces. And as an adventure it lacks the big budget set pieces in Foreign Correspondent or North By Northwest. But in terms of a mixture of mystery, comedy, romance and thrills it’s hard to imagine a better balance.

Still need convincing? Orson Welles loved the film so much he saw it in the cinema 11 times. So there.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Young and Innocent (1937)

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With Young and Innocent Hitchcock tried to make his 39 Steps lightning strike twice. Once again we have a falsely accused man on the run from the police, trying to track down the real culprit who, once again, has an immediately identifiable physical peculiarity.  Once again a spirited young woman gets caught up in his plight. And, once again, he gives us a cracker of a picture.

No espionage this time, though. Instead, struggling author Robert (Derrick De Marney) comes across the corpse of a lady washed up on the beach. He runs to get help, which is misinterpreted by some other onlookers as running away from the scene of the crime. Under questioning by the police it emerges that she was strangled to death by the belt of Robert’s raincoat. Our hero insists his raincoat went missing weeks before the murder. Do the cops believe him? Fat chance in a Hitchcock flick! What else is a guy to do but make his escape and try to solve the mystery himself?

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“Look! Our competence is getting away!”

The film’s success comes from the chemistry between Robert and the daughter of the police chief, Erica (Nova Pilbeam) who ends up helping him on the run. Unlike The 39 Steps, she’s not handcuffed to him for half the film, so early in proceedings she helps him not because she has to but because she wants to. The subtly erotic dialogue between them, aided by superb performances both leads, makes the relationship between the two feel refreshingly natural as well as exciting.

There’s also plenty of thrills along the way, the most famous of which is a long and swooping tracking shot which finally reveals the film’s villain.

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As well as some merry old japes, of course

Nowadays it’s overlooked more than The 39 Steps, probably because it’s more more low-key. There’s no international spy ring, the protagonist isn’t constantly betrayed and in place of dramatic Scottish highlands we have tranquil English countryside. Even the title sounds a bit placid.

But don’t let that put you off. Young and Innocent is a ton of fun. It’s an excellent mixture of humour and suspense grounded in two profoundly likeable protagonists. Little wonder Hitchcock thought it was the best of his British films. But what do I think is the best? Tune in next time.

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Although this one has funnier hats

Hitchcock-a-thon: The 39 Steps (1935)

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If The Man Who Knew Too Much was Hitchcock’s launching pad out of career stagnation, The 39 Steps was the rocket which blasted him into the stratosphere.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) meets a young lady at a variety show (Lucie Mannheim) who he shelters in his London flat from menacing goons who pursue her. She reveals herself as a spy on the run from a team of assassins lead by a man missing half his little finger. After she is murdered overnight Hannay is falsely suspected by the police. On the run from the law and the assassins, he flees to Scotland in search of the mysterious organisation “The 39 Steps”

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That’s not how you do the Spock salute

The film is joyous entertainment from start to finish. The first half plays as one of his most suspenseful set-ups yet. Hitchcock’s self-confessed suspicion of the police comes into full play as the innocent Hannay runs through the Scottish heather with officers hot on his heels. But it’s not just the coppers who Hannay has to watch out for; time and time again supposed friends and allies turn against him. A farmer’s downtrodden wife (played with luminescent charisma by Peggy Ashcroft) proves to be one of the few he can trust.

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This guy….not so much

While the suspense doesn’t lessen for the second half, more humour is introduced to keep things balanced. There’s a wonderful satire on crowd mentalities as Hannay darts into a political meeting to escape his pursuers where he delivers an improvised and incoherent motivation speech…met with rapturous applause.

But the wittiest scenes come after Hannay ends up handcuffed to a woman he met on the train (Madeleine Carroll). The two exchange gloriously sharp sexual banter.

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“For God’s sake, cover your mouth when you yawn”

“Could I be of any assistance?” Donat asks Carroll as she struggles to take off her stockings. Believe it or not the line was considered so risqué Christian purity organisations tried to have the film banned.

The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s biggest box office hit yet, both at home and in the US. It inspired The Sunday Times to declare “there is no doubt that Hitchcock is a genius. He is the real star of the film.” Dead right.

In terms of adventurous fun, could it get any better than this? Yes, as it turns out. The 39 Steps is a gem, but the crown jewel of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood years was still to come…

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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How on earth did this happen? In the same year Hitchcock gave audiences the one of worst films of his career (so far) and one of the greatest: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Why is it so good? Three words: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre. After displaying his phenomenal acting talent as a tormented child killer in Fritz Lang’s M three years earlier, Lorre came to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazi party. Hitchcock cast him almost immediately as the antagonist.

Here his character doesn’t have room for the kind of psychological complexity Lorre delivered in M, but he’s still entertaining as Hell to watch! Everything in his performance oozes creepy. He was, and always will be, a truly magnetic actor.

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But maybe not babysitter material

Lorre plays the leader of a terrorist group who kill a secret agent in a hotel in Switzerland. The agent dies in possibly the most British way imaginable – apologizing for the inconvenience. With his last breath he tells Jill (Edna Best) and Bob (Leslie Banks), a couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, to pass on urgent information to the British Consulate.

Bob and Jill quickly learn that Lorre’s gang are planning to assassinate a foreign diplomat in London, but they’re forced into silence when their daughter is kidnapped as a hostage. Unable to speak to the police, they take it upon themselves – with the help of their bumbling friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) – to fight through devious dentists and creepy cults to get her back. The clock is ticking to find her before the diplomat is killed and Europe is thrust into a second World War. Wouldn’t it be terrible if that ever happened? Ahem.

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Fuck dentists

Banks is compelling as the jaw-clenching father desperate to find his daughter, but Best is the wittier and more energetic of the pairing. She’s also responsible for the most euphoric “fuck yeah!” moment of the film. It really should be called The Couple Who Knew Two Much. But that sounds like it might be a Swinger movie.

Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much two decades later starring James Stewart and Doris Day. With a larger budget and big name cast it’s probably the better remembered of the two. But his earlier version is tenser, classier, wittier and has 100% more Peter Lorre.

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“Bitch, please”

Hitchcock-a-thon: Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

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It had to happen eventually. A Hitchcock film that’s bad. Not hard to get in to, not an acquired taste – bad. Actively bad. It comes at the end of Hitchcock’s career decline in the early ’30s and it’s worst of the lot.

Waltzes from Vienna was Hitchcock’s only attempt at a musical, which were very popular in the early ‘30s – presumably from the novelty of being able to hear screen actors sing. If you wanted to be generous you could say that at least he was branching out and trying something new. After all, the idea of a campy operetta directed by Alfred Hitchcock is so bizarre it could have been weirdly brilliant.

But it’s not. It’s feeble. It’s a paper thin non-entity of a film. If Hitchcock’s name wasn’t on the credits there would be no way of knowing he’s behind it and if, for some unfathomable reason, this film happened to be your introduction to Hitchcock you would baffled as to how he came to be known as the Master of Suspense. There’s no passion in this project, no flare, no vision. It’s an extremely monotonous affair.

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Are you sure it wasn’t Alan Smithee?

Johann Strauss Jr (Esmond Knight) is forced by his controlling father (Edmund Gwenn) to work in a bakery instead of pursuing a career in music. He falls in love with Rasi (Jessie Matthews), the daughter of the bakery’s proprietor. The film takes us through his struggles and insecurities as he composes The Blue Danube, tries to keep his relationship together and seeks reconciliation with his father.

The characters are bland, the performances lazy, the songs forgettable, the comedy humourless, and the tone unremitting saccharine.

There’s an especially embarrassing sequence where Strauss gets finds inspiration for the beat to his waltz from the rhythms of the bakery workplace. It’s about as corny as the “Toot Sweet” scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but nowhere near as fun.

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I wish I was baked watching this

Since Hitchcock took on the project during the “lowest ebb” of his career, there are apologists who say it is of interest because you can interpret Strauss’s fear of failure as reflective of Hitchcock’s professional woes.  It’s an interesting theory. But it doesn’t make the story any better.

The film’s cast was as dismissive of the film as Hitch was; Matthews wrote it off as “perfectly dreadful”. That’s being generous.

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Fiddle drivel

Hitchcock-a-thon: Number 17 (1932)

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After Rich and Strange was a box office bomb, British International Pictures took Hitchcock off the film he wanted to direct – an adaption of John Van Druten’s play “London Wall” – and assigned him to Number 17 instead. Although he clearly tries to inject some energy into the project, Number 17 unfortunately continues with the early ‘30s trend of mediocre Hitch flicks.

The bulk of the story takes place in a creepy abandoned house, where a detective (John Stuart) is snooping around. Amid the shadows and cobwebs he comes across a jittery homeless squatter (Leon M. Lion) and a bludgeoned corpse. As a gang of thieves show up with a stolen necklace it looks like our hero’s night is just beginning…

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Leon M Lion tried to high five his shadow

At 63 minutes Number 17 is Hitchcock’s shortest feature film, but it packs a lot of plot in its running time. And not in a good way. Even upon repeated viewings I found it hard to follow what was happening. Character motivations, plot-points and dialogue exchanges are all utterly contrived and muddled. At least all the villains had the decency to have creepy moustaches. That made things easier.

And then there’s the “comedy”. At the time music-hall comic actor Leon M. Lion was film’s biggest draw, securing him top billing on the posters. Maybe he was funny back then, but I found him as entertaining as a colonoscopy. Expect exaggerated mugging, overblown cockney accents and a running “joke” about a sausage. There’s even a scene with a crook that resembles a game of “Grandmother’s Footsteps”. It’s dire.

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Ha.

Still, what the film lacks in plot or characters it (partially) makes up for in atmosphere. The flickering candle light, long shadows and groaning wind make for effective mood setters.

And thank God for the final 20 minutes where Hitchcock gets to show off his high speed editing in an exhilarating final chase between a bus and runaway train. There’s also an amusing sight gag as the bus rockets past a roadside sign which reads “Stop here for dainty teas”

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Dain-tea

Despite one or two saving graces, Number 17 is jumbled mess. Upon release it was probably the weakest Hitchcock picture to date. But the worst was yet to come…