An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
The composer Johann Strauss develops his masterpiece while courting a young woman…
At the time of writing, the Alfred Hitchcock film Waltzes from Vienna is 85 years old – and when it was made the era it depicts was 68 years in the past. Every period drama ever produced has these kinds of multilevel time-lags and each one gives extra layers of meaning. In Waltzes from Vienna’s case, for example, we’re watching actors who have all long gone play people who would have lived 150 years ago. This means that while we’re bringing expectations and biases that wouldn’t have existed when the film was produced, the 1860s are also being seen through the prism of the 1930s. No wonder Waltzes from Vienna sometimes reminds you of the light-on-their-feet musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age; but it’s doubtful that this is a true reflection of mid-19th-century Austria.
Hitchcock didn’t make many period films, preferring the immediacy of contemporary stories. Jamaica Inn was released in 1939, but set in 1819; Under Capricorn, set 1851, came out in 1949; while movies like Juno and the Paycock (1930), Secret Agent (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Topaz (1969) are set a few years in the past. But Waltzes from Vienna is a rare foray into a style the director wasn’t famed for. It’s also his only musical film. Not a fan of the genre, he took the project on simply because no others were available and he later called it the lowest ebb of his career.
Nevertheless, and appropriately, music dominates. The first sound after the opening titles is the coarse honk of a fire-brigade horn as a crew of firefighters rush to an emergency. Meanwhile, above a café that’s ablaze, a man called Schani is playing a new piano composition to a young woman, Resi (Jessie Matthews). Schani, we soon learn, is Johann Strauss the Younger (Esmond Knight), so he knows his musical onions. As their romantic storyline plays out, the stage-by-stage composition of Strauss’s masterpiece The Blue Danube is a recurring motif, and there’s actually a lovely twist on expectation when it’s the fictional Resi who provides the key inspiration for the tune. Meanwhile, the movie’s incidental score is often punctuating the on-screen action with real wit. The marriage of image and sound is generally terrific.
The plot sees Schani and Resi’s relationship constantly checked by interruptions and distractions, such as a local noblewomen called Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton), who takes a shine to Schani; Resi’s father objecting to his daughter wedding a man who lacks independence; a rival suiter for her affections called Leopard; and Schani’s pompous father, the famous composer Johann Strauss the Elder (played by Hitchcock semi-regular Edmund Gwynn).
It’s a surprisingly lively and eccentric film, with plenty of humour and charm. When Resi climbs out of the window of the opening sequence’s burning building, for example, the act accidentally removes her dress – so she’s forced to stroll into a nearby shop and ask for a replacement. Moments later, a bystander sees smoke billowing out of an upstairs window and warns that the fire is spreading. Then a fireman appears at the window, with a lit pipe in his chops, and says, ‘The fire is out.’ There are also fun trivial moments such as the von Stahls’ two servants relaying a conversation between their employers as they, the servants, canoodle. It may have been made by a director who felt he was going through the motions, but there’s still his visual invention, wit and flamboyance.
Eight loafs of bread out of 10