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.

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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: Secret Agent (1936)

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No doubt trying to relive the same spy-story success earlier that year, Hitchcock’s next film returns to the world of espionage (once again starring Madeleine Carroll) this time set in the middle of World War I. Although Secret Agent doesn’t hold a candle to The 39 Steps there’s still a lot to enjoy.

A young British army officer (played by legendary stage actor John Gielgud) is declared dead so he can be given a false identity and bundled off to Switzerland on a secret mission. Now reborn as Mr. Ashenden he’s teamed up with an half-eccentric half-psychotic assassin known as “The General” (Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre) and his glamorous pretend wife Elsa (Madeleine Carroll).

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Now here’s some prime babysitting material

After they accidentally kill the wrong man under the belief he’s a German spy, the Ashendens become repulsed by espionage. “I don’t like murder at close quarters as much as I expected,” admits Elsa with a sigh.

Burdened with guilt, they struggle to see their mission out to the bitter end and infiltrate a secret German spy ring.

It’s certainly interesting to see a spy flick where the moral consequences of the characters’ actions are dwelt upon, as well as an exploration of duty vs. conscience. There’s also some thrilling touches thrown in along the way. In one of the film’s highlights they come across a dead body in a Swiss chapel, slumped across the organ keyboard – blaring out a single monotonous drone.

Speaking of monotonous, the film’s let-down, surprisingly, comes in the form of the Great Gielgud. He was vastly unhappy with his role and clearly couldn’t care less about it. It’s beyond phoning it in. It’s sent it by carrier pigeon. He’s cheerless, wooden and obviously bored.

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“Whoops! I almost gave a crap.”

It’s a pity because Lorre and Carroll both pull their weight. Lorre, playing a much lighter character than usual, is over-the-top but in his joyously unpredictable manner that makes him forever watchable. And Carroll shows off her full acting chops and does a cracking job portraying someone suffering under the heavy strain of guilt.

Secret Agent is also the film debut of Michael Redgrave who has a tiny, uncredited part as an army captain. Don’t worry, Michael. Your time will come. Patience, my pet.

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Here’s to you, Michael

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…