Every Alfred Hitchcock film – ranked

AlfredHitchcock

Over the last couple of years I’ve been watching and reviewing every surviving Alfred Hitchcock movie. So as today (Tuesday 13 August 2019) marks 120 years since the director’s birth, here are all those films in order of preference…

53. Number Seventeen (1932)
An underwhelming, muddled mess that sees various ill-defined characters doing boring things in an abandoned house. Read the full review here.

52. Juno and the Paycock (1930)
A plainly filmed drama based on a dull stage play set during the Irish Civil War. Read the full review here.

51. The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
Soppy and forgettable melodrama. Read the full review here, where I go off-topic and discuss where Hitchcock got his ideas from.

50. The Skin Game (1931)
Badly made, run-of-the-mill drama about landowners. Read the full review here.

49. Easy Virtue (1928)
A meandering romantic potboiler. Read the full review here.

48. Champagne (1928)
Frivolous and lightweight, this silent comedy sees an heirless lose her money. Read the full review here.

47. Elstree Calling (1930)
Hitchcock directed some linking scenes for this diverting if up-and-down sketch film. Read the full review here.

46. Jamaica Inn (1939)
A well staged, but ultimately lacklustre, adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Charles Laughton hams it up something rotten. Read the full review here.

45. Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)
An attempt at a screwball comedy, with one of the genre’s leading lights – Carole Lombard. It doesn’t really come off, but is still reasonably enjoyable. Read the full review here.

44. I Confess (1953)
A po-faced Montgomery Clift plays a priest wrongly accused of murder in a drama that misfires. Read the full review here.

43. Topaz (1969)
The spy plot is often clunky and the cast is one of Hitchcock’s weakest, but there’s a certain European glamour to proceedings. Roscoe Lee Browne has an enjoyable minor role as an undercover agent. Read the full review here.

42. The Paradine Case (1947)
Good turns from Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan make this illogical courtroom drama worth seeing. Read the full review here.

41. Rich and Strange (1931)
A married couple splurge some newfound cash on an around-the-world holiday. Throwaway but fun. Read the full review here.

40. Suspicion (1941)
Cary Grant excels – did he ever do anything else? – as a flashy cad whose marriage to Joan Fontaine doesn’t go well. Read the full review here.

39. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The first of two Hitchcock films using the same storyline about a couple’s child being kidnapped by terrorists. This version suffers a bit from stiff-upper-lipedness but is enlivened by Peter Lorre turning up as the villain. Read the full review here.

38. The Birds (1963)
Not as wonderful as its reputation suggests, but still excellently made and genuinely terrifying at times. Read the full review here.

37. Under Capricorn (1949)
A rare Hitchcock period film, this 19th-century drama set in an Australian colony town is fun to watch because most scenes are shot in long, unedited, theatrical takes. Read the full review here.

36. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Far from Hitch’s best movie about international espionage, this loses steam after a fun opening act. But the director was so adapt at this genre that it’s still entertaining. Read the full review here.

35. The Ring (1927)
An engaging silent film about boxing and romance. Read the full review here.

34. The Manxman (1929)
Before he became the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock directed in a variety of different styles; here, for example, is a likeable melodrama about a love triangle on the Isle of Man. Read the full review here.

33. Murder! (1930)
This early talkie has a lot of vibrant visuals and an interesting plot about an actress accused of killing a colleague. Read the full review here.

32. Secret Agent (1936)
An entertaining spy film that eerily pre-empts the tropes of the James Bond stories – 16 years before Ian Fleming wrote his first novel. Read the full review here.

31. Torn Curtain (1966)
Another espionage thriller, this time with Paul Newman’s scientist defecting to East Germany and being followed by his concerned girlfriend (Julie Andrews). The plot is see-through but there are some great moments, including a macabre death scene for one of the bad guys. Read the full review here.

30. Saboteur (1942)
It lacks star power and is episodic, but this is one of several entertaining Hitchcock films about a man wrongly accused of a crime. Read the full review here, in which I discuss the context of making a war film during the war.

29. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
A pleasingly quirky black comedy about a dead body being found in the woods. John Forsythe, Hitchcock regular Edmund Gwenn and Shirley MacLaine (in her first film) lead the cast, while the autumnal colours of New England are gorgeously presented in VistaVision. Read the full review here.

28. Spellbound (1945)
Ingrid Bergman is the star attraction in this torrid, psychology-based thriller about a man (Gregory Peck) with amnesia posing as a doctor. Ignore the naïve character work; enjoy the stellar cast and the way Hitch ekes out the mysteries for all their worth. Salvador Dalí helped create the film’s oddball dream sequence. Read the full review here.

27. Downhill (1927)
Impressive silent movie starring Ivor Novello as a student whose life suffers when he makes an honourable choice. Read the full review here.

26. Young and Innocent (1937)
A lively and fun man-on-the-run story that features one of Hitchcock’s most audacious shots as a camera swoops across a ballroom full of people to focus in on a murderer. Read the full review here.

25. Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
Hitch’s only music-based film, the story charts Johann Strauss’s composition of The Blue Danube (with a rather loose sense of historical accuracy). It’s made with a sense of humour. Read the full review here.

24. Sabotage (1936)
A tense thriller set in and around a London cinema. The sequence where a boy makes a cross-city trip on a bus – while unknowingly carrying a bomb – is justly revered. Read the full review here.

23. The Pleasure Garden (1925)
Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film is a little gem: a visually inventive and never-boring story about two West End dancers and their conflicting romantic experiences. Read the full review here, in which I set off to explore Hitchcock’s childhood and early career.

22. Strangers on a Train (1951)
A devilish thriller, based on the macabre premise of a man committing a murder on someone else’s behalf and then expecting the same in return. The tension mounts throughout. Read the full review here, where I look at the imagery of the film.

21. Family Plot (1976)
Hitchcock’s final film – released over half a century after his first – is a comedy thriller about a pair of con artists trying to track down a rich heir. The cast is terrific, with fun turns from Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, William Devane, Katherine Helmond and Coach from Cheers, while the movie never takes itself too seriously. Read the full review here.

20. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The one instance of Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own work. This 1950s, colour, Hollywood redo betters the original 1930s, black-and-white, British version by virtue of having a better lead cast (James Stewart and Doris Day) and a deeper sense of emotion. Read the full review here.

19. Stage Fright (1950)
A complex crime thriller set around the world of the theatre. Some critics have taken issue with what they see as a storytelling cheat, but we revel in the cat-and-mouse plotting, the suspenseful action, the eclectic cast (Richard Todd, Marlene Dietrich, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, the Major from Fawlty Towers) and the themes of lying, pretending and acting. Read the full review here.

18. Blackmail (1929)
Planned as a silent movie, then retooled during production as a talkie (Britain’s first), Blackmail is simply terrific. Starring Czech actress Anny Ondra – the first in a long line of troubled blondes in Hitchcock’s filmography – it sees a woman fight back during a rape and kill her attacker. She fears being accused of murder, then an anonymous witness attempts to extort money from her. Stunningly inventive, both visually and aurally, it also features one of Hitch’s most prominent cameos: he plays a man being irritated by a child on a tube train. Read the full review here.

17. Marnie (1964)
Tippi Hedren’s lead character is a troubled drifter, a woman who takes jobs so she can steal the company’s cash and then move on to a new town. But when she encounters Sean Connery’s wily businessman, he catches her out and develops an obsession. The movie is excellently put-together, very watchable and fascinatingly complex. But it does need to be viewed in context. Behind the scenes, Alfred Hitchcock had a reprehensible attitude to an infamous rape scene, while the story arc sees a psychologically damaged woman ‘cured’ by domineering misogyny and a forced catharsis. Read the full review here.

16. To Catch a Thief (1955)
As delightfully sun-kissed and elegant as its French Riviera setting, this stylish, witty and romantic caper film sees an effortlessly debonair Cary Grant attempting to prove that he’s not responsible for a spate of thefts. Grace Kelly is the scintillatingly sexy love interest; John Williams and Jessie Royce Landis provide entertaining support. Read the full review here.

15. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This train-based spy caper often has its tongue in its cheek, but is still suspenseful in the classic Hitchcock way. While commuting across Europe, Margaret Lockwood’s Iris meets a friendly old woman – but after the woman goes missing no other passenger remembers seeing her. As well as the mystery plot to enjoy, there are comedic minor characters, charming model shots and dialogue worthy of a screwball comedy. Read the full review here, in which I directly compare the movie with its 1979 remake.

14. The Wrong Man (1956)
The straightest and least flamboyant film the director ever made sees Henry Fonda’s jazz musician and family man tagged for a crime he didn’t commit. But rather than the equivalent characters in the many other Hitchcock films that use this idea, Manny doesn’t flee across country to prove his innocence. He instead surrenders himself to the justice system, which is dramatised in cold, harsh detail. Largely shot in real locations, the movie has a vérité feel and a terrific cast (including an impressive Vera Miles as Manny’s anxious wife). Read the full review here.

13. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Alfred’s finest silent film is a dark and dangerous tale, a gorgeous mixture of tension, menace, romance, visual audacity and German Expressionism. Ivor Novello plays a mysterious man who is suspected to be a Jack the Ripper-alike killer. Read the full review here.

12. Rebecca (1940)
A ghost story where the ghost never appears, this Gothic-tinged movie mixes high emotions with effective psychology. Joan Fontaine’s unnamed heroine falls for a rich man played by Laurence Olivier. But after she moves into his Cornish country house, Manderley, she can’t escape the shadow cast by his late first wife. Hitchcock shows an amazing command of the material, artfully shifting the tone from romance to mystery, from melodrama to horror. Read the full review here.

11. Lifeboat (1944)
The first in a subset of Hitchcock films that tell their stories in a single setting, this entire movie takes place in a small craft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after a passenger ship is torpedoed by the Germans. (The film was made during the Second World War.) A ragtag collection of survivors must work together, keep each other’s spirits up, marshal supplies, perform emergency medical aid and try to find a way out of the situation. The ante is then raised exponentially when a German from the U-boat that caused the disaster is found floating in the water. An endlessly impressive, claustrophobic and never-dull film. Read the full review here.

10. Frenzy (1972)
A brilliantly seedy and grubby movie, set in a down-and-dirty, working-class London. A serial killer is on the loose around Covent Garden and an innocent man (Jon Finch) finds himself accused after his ex-wife is raped and murdered. The terrific supporting cast includes Anna Massey, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Billie Whitelaw and Bernard Cribbins, while the genuine locations and lack of any Hollywood glamour give the story a sinister, sleazy edge. (Being a Hitchcock film, there are also flashes of black comedy.) Read the full review here.

9. Psycho (1960)
A sensationally twisted horror film – the granddaddy of the slasher genre – which is enlivened by the very smart central performances from Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. The famously famous shower scene is still shocking and effective when you view it in context, but the storytelling that leads up to that moment might be even more impressive. Read the full review here – which, to be honest, doesn’t really talk about Psycho very much and instead looks at the connections between Hitchcock and James Bond.

8. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Joseph Cotten plays a mysterious man from Philadelphia who needs to lie low, so he goes to stay with his apple-pie relatives in a small, quiet town. However, his relationship with his doting niece (a wonderful Teresa Wright) is tested when she begins to believe he’s a serial killer. Complexity, ambiguity and film-noir style abound. Read the full review here.

7. The 39 Steps (1935)
A rip-roaring romp that sees Robert Donat flee to Scotland to find out why a woman was killed in his London flat. Madeleine Carroll is the spunky dame he hooks up with along the way, while John Laurie of Dad’s Army fame plays a grumpy crofter. Packed full of excitement, humour, action and panache, this is an endlessly influential movie that essentially serves as the blueprint for all the road-movie caper films that have followed. Read the full review here, where I talk about remakes of and sequels to Hitchcock’s work.

6. Notorious (1946)
One of Hitchcock’s most sophisticated works, this grown-up spy thriller sees Cary Grant’s US intelligence agent recruit Ingrid Bergman to go undercover with some Nazis hiding in Brazil. The two leads are simply sensational – their sexual chemistry is unrivalled – while there’s strong support from the likes of Claude Rains. Hitchcock directs with precision, keeping things focused and textured at all times. Sublime beyond belief. Read the full review here.

5. Rope (1948)
A dazzling example of filmmaking rhetoric, this one-set thriller plays out in real time and is shot in a succession of loooooong takes. Two young men murder a friend as an intellectual exercise then invite his loved ones round for a soirée with the corpse hidden in a nearby chest. Playful and macabre in equal measure, with a terrific cast headlined by John Dall, Farley Grainger and James Stewart. Read the full review here – see if you can spot the incredibly funny conceptual gag I employed while writing it.

4. Rear Window (1954)
Another high-concept film. James Stewart plays a housebound photographer who becomes vicariously curious about the neighbours he spies on from his apartment window. When he believes he sees evidence of murder, his broken leg prevents him from investigating directly so he recruits girlfriend Grace Kelly and housekeeper Thelma Ritter to act as his proxy. The camera never once leaves Stewart’s side, so we experience the story solely from his perspective: we see what he sees, feels what he feels. A sumptuous piece of cinematic storytelling. Read the full review here, in which – like every review of Rear Window ever published – I discuss Hitchcock’s use of point of view.

3. North by Northwest (1959)
A foot-to-the-floor adventure movie that sees Cary Grant’s oblivious businessman get caught up in international espionage. The plot is probably the least important aspect (in Hitchcock’s terms, it’s a MacGuffin – something trivial to motivate the characters). Instead, the storyline acts as a gallery space on whose walls hang a myriad of pleasures: mysteries, action sequences, comedy, sex, danger, tension, absurdity, style, panache, excitement, interesting characters, theatrical production design, thrilling incidental music and an enormous amount of fun… Read the full review here.

2. Vertigo (1958)
A profound meditation on the dangers of obsession, this beautiful and deeply meaningful movie – once voted the greatest ever made by a leading film magazine – follows James Stewart’s retired cop as he falls for a psychologically unsound woman played by Kim Novak. The craft on display in the filmmaking is stunning; the way Hitchcock reveals information, paces scenes and stokes emotions is utter perfection. The effect is close to hypnotism, so complete is the grip of the storytelling. Read the full review here, during which I go off on a tangent about how I love cinema.

1. Dial M for Murder (1954)
Beating the magisterial Vertigo to the top spot based on a decision made by the heart rather than the head, Dial M is the director’s take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. We’re in an upper-middle-class world of a moneyed couple who seem at first to be happy, but there are dark secrets within the marriage. The Hitchcockian twist comes from the fact that we viewers are privy to the killer’s plan from the start… Ray Milland’s ex-tennis pro decides to bump off his wealthy wife in revenge for her having an affair. (She’s played by Grace Kelly, one of the most beautiful women ever filmed, so personally I’d have forgiven and forgotten.) We follow Tony as he meticulously plans the crime and blackmails an old acquaintance into doing the deed while he creates an alibi, but then on the night it all goes wrong… Stylish, brilliantly cast, and – as I can attest – endlessly rewatchable entertainment. Read the full review here, in which I argue my favourite Hitchcock movie is essentially an episode of Colombo.

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Vertigo and the Obsession of Cinema

Vertigo

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A retired policeman is hired to tail a troubled woman but fails to prevent her from dying. Then soon afterwards, he spots her doppelganger…

Displaying a masterful command of both form and feeling, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is measurelessly wonderful. It’s one of the most exemplary films ever made – a profound piece of work that thrillingly encapsulates what the medium of cinema can achieve. However, there’s been such a wealth of material written about the film since its release in 1958 that a blog like this has no hope of adding anything new. So instead of a straight review, I propose to use the space for something else. It’ll be a personal – some might say self-indulgent – discussion of falling in love with cinema. But we’ll not be going totally off-topic, because above all else Vertigo is about obsession.

Vertigo2

A whirling, swirling matrix of high emotions and dark, dizzying undercurrents, the movie tells the story of former San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart, giving the best performance in a career dominated by excellence). When he’s hired to spy on a disturbed woman called Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak, sensational), he soon becomes enthralled. She’s clearly troubled, and seems at times to be possessed by the ghostly spirit of her own great-grandmother, but Scottie is fascinated and enamoured in equal measure. He saves her from killing herself and they fall in love, but his acrophobia prevents him from stopping a second – and successful – suicide attempt. Weeks after her tragic death, he then spots a lookalike woman on the street and begins to purposefully manipulate her into being a replacement for his lost love…

Early in the film, Hitchcock presents us with lengthy, dialogue-free sequences: we watch Scottie as he watches Madeleine, and we’re sucked into the same kind of enchantment that he’s experiencing. The mood of the filmmaking – slow but graceful and enormously powerful, like an ocean liner – draws you in, seduces you, entraps you, and doesn’t let go. The effect is close to hypnotism. The actors’ performances, Bernard Herrmann’s never-betted incidental music and Hitchcock’s scintillating control of time and space create a trance state – both on screen and inside each viewer’s mind.

The film is addictive while you’re watching it and that sense doesn’t go away afterwards either. It demands attention and cultivates affection, just like Madeleine. The academic Charles Barr discusses this in his book-length analysis of Vertigo written for the BFI (highly recommended: seek it out if you want to explore the movie’s abundant subtexts). In the opening chapter, aptly called Obsession, he recounts several instances of people being drawn to the movie again and again over several years. It’s such a rich film that it not only stands up to being seen more than once, it grows with meaning exponentially. You appreciate so much more with each viewing: the symbolic use of reds and greens; the telling references to San Francisco’s heritage; the subtly of Scottie’s platonic friend Midge; the intricacies of the mystery plot (ie, what’s *really* happening); the way the cutting creates rhythms and conveys narrative information… The more you look the more you see.

Vertigo1

But that’s true of cinema as a whole. If you become hooked, you become obsessed. There are, no doubt, many people who are quite content to watch a film once, take in the surface details, and then move on, never giving it much thought again. (Poor sods.) But some of us – and if you’ve read this far, that probably includes you – realise something deeper. We know that movies are not disposable or ephemeral. (Well, admittedly some of them are: I’m talking the good, the great and the interesting here.) They’re more like the people in your life: each one has a unique personality; they have characteristics and psychology and moods.

Many are like lifelong friends you relish hanging out with again and again, nostalgically riffing the same old jokes and simply enjoying each other’s company. Some are extrovert and brash and shout their glories for all to hear; others are introverts who only reveal their secrets after several encounters. There can be challenging films that require patience and understanding, but you sense they’ll ultimately be worth the effort, while some are objectionable little shits you catch sight of once and then avoid forever. Vertigo is that one-in-a-million soul that evokes love at first sight and total devotion.

VertigoScreenGrab2

In the kind of coincidence that makes life worth living, I was considering writing a blog about how Vertigo could stand as a metaphor for my love of cinema when I stumbled across an astonishingly relevant book in an Oxfam charity shop. Written by a retired insurance broker called Norman Olden, Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan was published in 1991. It’s an incredible example of cinematic obsession in action.

In the mid-1920s, Olden was a teenager living in London who spent much of his spare time in cinemas. Partly as an aide-mémoire, he began methodically keeping track of not only which films he’d seen, but in which venues he saw them, and who accompanied him, and who the leading actors had been, and which studio had produced the film. Before he knew it, he had comprehensive records and anal statistical lists charting *years* of cinema-going. Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan is based on those copious notebooks, cataloguing a habit involving thousands of trips to hundreds of cinemas from 1927 until 1989.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan book cover

Reading the book now is a thing of wonder, especially if you adore this kind of trivial minutia – it’s one part history of cinema, one part social snapshot, one part trainspotter’s ledger. The story is told year by year, beginning before the introduction of talkies, passing through in the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking in the blockbuster era of the 1970s and 80s, and ending with the release of films such as When Harry Met Sally and Dead Poet’s Society. Because he was going to the pictures so often, the number of films he saw seriously began to mount up. Olden was occasionally featured in the press (‘Has Seen 1,890 Films’ ran a small item in the Daily Mirror of 2 February 1934) and he eventually developed an ambition to see 10,000.

This was a tough task, especially as he grew older. British cinemas began to eschew double-features of new releases and, instead, showed the same films for longer. Olden’s free time was taken up by getting married and watching more and more cricket. And, perhaps inevitably, he found that fewer films each year were to his tastes. In one of the book’s more oddball moments, he records a bizarre tactic to reach his self-imposed quota: ‘I was forced to the sad conclusion that if I were to reach my goal of 10,000, I had better attend some double features of sex or porno films. To be truthful, they are not as bad as all that.’ He found German porn films ‘funny rather than vulgar’ but found British equivalents ‘quite pathetic’. He’s quick to mention that he stopped this habit once he’d crossed the 10,000 threshold.

Norman Olden

As well as the relentless recitations of – and opinions given on – films seen across more than six decades, Olden (pictured above) also peppers his book with details of his personal life. We learn about his parents, his jobs, his girlfriends, his wife, his experiences during the war, his holidays, and his love of theatre. He comes across as gentlemanly, old-school and politically conservative (he admits to being thrilled by films like Death Wish because they depict criminals getting what they deserve!). The overwhelming impression, however, is one of enthusiasm. He’s just generally wowed and thrilled by cinema of all forms, of all genres, from all countries; he’s willing to give anything a go, and his enjoyment is infectious.

That doesn’t mean that Norman loves everything he sees, however, and he holds some unorthodox opinions along the way. The rare movies he doesn’t like, for example, include Citizen Kane (‘tedious and pretentious’), The Maltese Falcon (‘my number-one disappointment in all my film-going’), Some Like It Hot (‘another Monroe failure…  I have never thought men in drag the least bit funny’) and All the President’s Men (‘it left a nasty taste in my mouth, maybe because I believe Nixon will go down in history as a good American president’). As he passes through middle age he’s also nonplussed by violent or provocative films, disliking fare such as A Clockwork Orange, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Omen.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan page

Given the era his book covers, it’s no surprise that he mentions seeing several Alfred Hitchcock films. His movie-going odyssey, after all, begins in the year that Hitchcock’s debut was released in the UK and ends a decade or so after Hitch’s death. He was generally a fan, and from an early age. Impressed in 1929 by Blackmail (‘England’s first talking picture’), he made a mental note to keep an eye out for its director’s future work. He records seeing Rebecca in 1940; four years later he thought Lifeboat was marvellous: ‘Who can wonder that Hitchcock became a name with which to conjure; he had an unerring flair for filmmaking.’ He says he would have guessed Strangers on a Train was a Hitchcock film and was charmed by the innovative Rear Window. Cary Grant ‘played out an improbable story with immense panache’ in To Catch a Thief, while The Trouble With Harry was delightful and Dial M for Murder ‘an intellectual treat’. Olden was ‘duly shocked out of my seat by the bloody murder in the shower’ in Psycho and found The Birds startlingly realistic.

Sadly for the purposes of this blog post, if he did see Vertigo he failed to mention it in Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan.

One of the reasons Olden’s book struck such a chiming chord with me was that I have my own equivalent record of cinema visits. I assembled it a few years ago, basing it initially on annual lists I’d been keeping in appointment diaries since I was 18 years old. For films seen before I was 18, I’ve had to rely on my memory so those years may not be complete. There won’t be many missing entries, though. I fell in love with films on VHS in the 1980s and trips to the cinema were rare treats indeed. It was only once I went to university in 1997 that I started going more often – hence the habit of keeping records. I now update the list after each trip.

ET poster

If I look over the list now, it brings back so many great memories. I can vaguely recall, as a three-year-old, starring up at the huge vastness of a cinema screen when my parents took me to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial during a rainy Lake District holiday in 1982. (I’ve always been very proud that my ‘first’ was such a wonderful movie.) A few years later and 1989 was a sensational time to be a young film fan. Seeing a sequel to Back to the Future was almost unbearably exciting (to this day I have an enormous soft spot for Part II), while I can clearly remember the hearty laughter that the gags in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got from a packed house in Southport.

The film doesn’t need to have been a classic for my memories to flood back. For some unfathomable reason, I can remember seeing comedy Nuns on the Run with my mother in 1990. I enjoyed it more than she did; I imagine the same would be true if we both watched it again. We used to go to the cinema together quite often, me being an only child and she being a single parent. I owe her a great deal – just generally of course, but certainly in terms of my love of film. As a young child I saw violent and sweary movies such as Aliens and Commando and Die Hard at home on video and my mum never objected because she knew I could handle it. She even occasionally sneaked me into cinemas with her to see 15-certificate films when I was underage. We went to Oliver Stone’s JFK twice because we both adored it so much. We watched Schindler’s List together and were blown away. When I’m on my deathbed and asked to cite the greatest things that have ever happened to me, very near the top of the list will be the fact I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day on a big screen when I was 12 years old.

The cinema wasn’t always a wonderful experience, of course. I remember being confused by the Michael Jackson vehicle Moonwalker because it had no real storyline. Ghostbusters 2 was vaguely disappointing. My friends and I all thought Drop Dead Fred was dreadful. White Fang was incredibly boring. But the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Sneakers

A year before I entered into my teens, my mother and I moved from Lancashire to Derbyshire. At my new school I soon became pals with two boys called Stuart Oultram and Andy Fisher – the three of us are still friends today – and we began to hang out together, including occasional cinema visits. We adored the caper film Sneakers (pictured above) so much that we went back to see it again the following week. (It’s still one of my favourite movies – easily in my top five.) Three years later, I caught a Bond flick at the cinema for the first time: the amazing GoldenEye, seen with Stuart. I’ve not missed a 007 film since. In 1996, he and I also tried an obscure, low-budget, black-and-white horror called Nadja, which became one of his favourites. It was on at the Metro Cinema, an independent housed in a building on Green Lane in Derby that dates from 1876 – and a place that would soon come back into my life…

In 1997, I moved away to university in Leicester and had a fairly miserable year. Homesick, lonely and not keen on the new friends I’d made, I took to going to the cinema on my own as a way of escaping the darkness. With a National Union of Students card, I could get into the local UCI multiplex for just £3 so ended up seeing some films more than once. I watched As Good as It Gets and The Devil’s Advocate at least twice, Tomorrow Never Dies and Alien: Resurrection about three times each.

LAConfidential

I also saw what instantly became my single favourite film of all time: LA Confidential (pictured above). I was so enraptured by this sassy, stylish, sinister, film-noir masterpiece that I raved about it to my old school friends – so much so that Andy, Stuart and I then went to see it together. Thankfully, they loved it too. I even tried seeing it a third time, again on my own, but two elderly women sat near me kept talking so I left after half an hour. (Oh, the irony: the only time I’ve ever walked out of a cinema and it was during what I consider to be the best movie ever made.)

After a year of unhappiness in Leicester, something had to change. So in the summer of 1998 I switched universities to the University of Derby, an institution based in a city I knew well from living close by as a teenager. My new degree course was Film & Television Studies and – thrillingly for me – it was based in the same Gothic building on Green Lane that housed the independent Metro Cinema. We actually used its screening room during the day for our lectures; then in the evenings it became a public cinema. There were instances of me, essentially, spending all day in the same room.

Green Lane, Derby

As you get older, however, a lot of experiences feel less vital simply because of familiarity. So while I continued to go to the cinema in my 20s, fewer visits have lodged specifically in my memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1999, my mate Will Haywood and I went to a weekday morning screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Unless rose-tinted specs are at play, I recall us both enjoying it. It only sunk in later that the film was drivel. (You can see my cinema ticket below, Sellotaped into my 1999/2000 appointment diary.) The following year, I saw a revival of one of my all-time favourites, Back to the Future, at the Metro and this opened my eyes to the joy of seeing a classic film on a huge screen. I now love seeing old movies at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End. It allows you to reappraise, as well as wallow in shameless nostalgia.

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In 2002, at the age of 23, I moved to London and rather fell out of the habit of going to the cinema. There were just too many other things demanding my attention – an exciting job, new friends, being young and having energy, that kind of thing. I made sure to see Bond films when they came around, but otherwise only went occasionally. That fallow period came to an end, appropriately, when Back to the Future was rereleased to mark its 25th anniversary in 2010. I went twice and caught the bug again. Since then, I’ve gone to the cinema every couple of months or so. Nothing to compare with Norman Olden’s multiple-times-a-week strike rate, and I’ve always seen far more films at home than in a cinema, but it’s still a very important part of my life.

Even with middle age approaching fast and going to the cinema no longer being a novelty, I can still be utterly captivated. In my 30s I fell into my current habit of going to see the big sci-fi and superhero movies with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. And it was with Fraser that I had the most scintillating cinema experience of my adult life. Just before Christmas 2015, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Everyman Baker Street in London. It was a movie we’d waited a very long time to see and we were both nervous and excited. No spoilers, but the final scene made such an overpowering impression on me – in effect, for a minute or so I forgot I was watching something fictional – that I walked out afterwards in a daze. Fraser did too. We stood on the busy pavement agog. We’re both Star Wars nerds, and had hoped this new one would be enjoyable, but we simply couldn’t believe the movie had been *that* good.

That’s what cinema can do. It can enthral and fascinate, just like Vertigo’s Madeleine. Good and great films rattle around inside your brain long after the end credits have rolled; they can provide enjoyment, entertainment, emotional fulfilment, intellectual stimuli, catharsis, joy or simply a carefree couple of hours.

In the introduction to his book, Norman Olden attempts to explain this. ‘Above it all,’ he says, ‘was the knowledge that for three and a half hours, I was going to escape to an enchanted place where I would be richly entertained, enjoy the comfort and luxury in so many of the cinemas I visited and the good manners of the audiences. I must bless whatever gods may be for my good fortune in having had all these joys at my disposal just at the very time they were necessary to me.’

Isn’t that fantastic? Doesn’t that just cut through to the core of why so many of us love movies? I think it’s his use of the word ‘escape’ that gets me. First and foremost I want films to be essentially trivial. I don’t mean unimportant or not worthy of discussion or lightweight. But the way cinema can distract you from the pressures and problems of real life – give you a respite and some fantasy – has been a regular solace for me during difficult times, and I imagine the same is true for lots of other people. As for Vertigo, let’s ignore this blog’s usual scoring conventions so we can emphasis just what a majestic movie it is.

A thousand men walking past the offices of Gavin Elster out of 10VertigoCast.png

Notes:

Charles Barr’s wonderful analysis of Vertigo is part of the BFI Film Classics series. It was first published in 2002.

Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan by Norman Olden was published by The Book Guild in 1991, when its recommended retail price was £12.50. I bought a secondhand copy in a branch of Oxfam in Rochester on 6 July 2019. I doubt I’ve ever spent a better £2.99.

You can see my pedantic list of cinema visits by clicking on this link.

Waltzes from Vienna (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)

WaltzesFromVienna

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

Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

ForeignCorrespondent

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A reporter is sent to Europe to get a scoop on the upcoming war but soon becomes embroiled with a sinister plot

Alfred Hitchcock made several films with action set pieces, scenes of tension, suspense, double-crosses, and moments of both tragedy and absurdity. So Foreign Correspondent is going up against some hefty competition, movies such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest. While no disaster, Foreign Correspondent is not in that class.

It’s August 1939. Europe is on what is almost always called in these cases the brink of war. Over in the US, the editor of the New York Globe newspaper is tired of the flat, drab coverage he’s been receiving from his reporters in the field so seeks out an employee who can bring a fresh perspective to the situation. A louche, carefree hack called Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is plucked from the newsroom, given the grand-sounding pen name Huntley Haverstock, and sent off across the Atlantic. Editor Powers (Harry Davenport) specifically wants an exclusive chat with an influential Dutch diplomat called Van Meer.

Having never been a foreign correspondent before, Jones shows both naivety – he moots trying to get an interview with Adolf Hitler – and hutzpah. When he arrives in a London full of bowler-hatted men, he meets a colleague who cynically tells him that all he needs do is forward on press releases and sign them ‘our foreign correspondent’. But Jones is wilier than that, and soon thinks he’s got a scoop when he bumps into Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) outside his hotel. However, soon after a polite but substance-light chat, Jones learns that the man was actually an imposter…

Meanwhile, our hero gains a love interest. Van Meer is supposed to be talking at a meeting of the Universal Peace Party, a multi-national anti-war movement. At the posh shindig, Jones meets a woman called Carol (Laraine Day) and accidentally offends her by ridiculing the party’s leader – who happens to be her father. As the story throws them together in the classic thriller style, they become a mismatched Hitchcock couple a la The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent: they bicker but are clearly attracted to each other.

After the London shindig, the action then moves to a political conference in Amsterdam. Jones sees the fake Van Meer outside the venue so confronts him, but then the man is shot on the street by an assassin. This audacious and cinematic sequence is the highlight of the whole film: we’re outdoors, it’s raining, the gunman poses as a photographer to get close to his prey, there are high-angle shots of umbrellas twitching as the assassin flees through the nearby crowd; and the scene then evolves into a car chase. Hitchcock shows a brilliant choreography of action, actors and background extras. It’s terrific stuff.

Just generally, the breakneck story plough ahead; the film has a real pace to it. The script also contains the kind of rat-a-tat dialogue you’d expect from a 1930s screwball comedy. However, the back-and-forth patter is not always played as fluently as you’d hope and, as the plot goes through some not-terribly-interesting twists, everything unfortunately starts to feel a bit samey and inconsequential. It doesn’t have the ante-raising moments you need in this kind of film.

There are still exciting episodes and individual images, however. The film begins with a cute model shot of the New York newspaper office building, complete with huge globe logo spinning atop. In the middle of the film, Jones is shadowed by a seemingly friendly man (played by Edmund Gwenn) who lures him to the heights of Westminster Cathedral’s tower intent on pushing him off. The plot climaxes with an enormously impressive action sequence as a flying boat stocked with passengers crashes into the Atlantic.

But this is a lesser Hitchcock film, lacking the magic that powers the best of his thrillers. It was only his second movie made in America (after Rebecca), which may explain the lack of punch. As Hitchcock later said, in 1940 thrillers were ‘looked on as second-rate’ in Hollywood. In the UK, however, they were ‘part of the literature’ – thanks in part to the successful capers Hitchcock himself had directed. With Foreign Correspondent, the required tone – serious but playful – doesn’t quite hit home. It’s a film about serious subject matters such as war, assassination and betrayal, but the script is going for the kind of breezy action-and-suspense later used in, say, the James Bond series. Style and substance don’t mesh.

Seven men reading a newspaper out of 10

The Pleasure Garden (1925, Alfred Hitchcock)

PleasureGarden

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A pair of chorus-line dancers experience conflicting fortunes in their careers and in their love lives…

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that while life must be lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. On that basis, let’s see if we can understand how Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature film as a director – The Pleasure Garden, shot in 1925 – came into being and how it began a career that has had such a lasting impact. We’ll get to the movie itself in due course, but first a diversion…

In June 2019, almost 120 years after Hitchcock’s birth, I set out to explore the area he will have known as a child. However, when I arrived in east London I was confronted by something that can’t have been there in 1899. Leytonstone Underground Station (opened 1856) is decorated with 17 bold, colourful and rather delightful murals celebrating the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. They adorn the walls of the sloping tunnels that lead from the street level to the ticket office, and are made up of a total of 80,000 tiny coloured tiles. Everyone but me was ignoring them now, being more concerned with their commute and perhaps numbed to them by overfamiliarity, but to a newcomer these mosaics are incredibly striking pieces of art.

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They were commissioned by the local authorities and produced by an arts company called Greenwich Mural Workshop, then unveiled on 3 May 2001 to rather belatedly mark the centenary of Hitch’s birth. Fourteen of them represent specific films from throughout his career, so one by one I admired imaginatively dramatic scenes from The Pleasure Garden (pictured above), The Skin Game, Number Seventeen, Rebecca, Suspicion, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.

The remaining three murals are especially apt for our purposes here. In one, for example, Hitchcock’s childhood connection to Leytonstone is represented by a young Alfred outside his family’s shop in around 1906, dressed as a soldier for Empire Day celebrations. This image seems to have been based on a rare surviving photograph of Hitchcock’s father and older brother (both called William) taken circa 1900.

The other two mosaics, meanwhile, see Hitch later in life working on his films – in one he’s with Marlene Dietrich, who starred in his 1950 thriller Stage Fright; in another he’s calling action on the set of The Skin Game (pictured below). Stretching from his childhood to the peak of his Hollywood powers, these murals raise an obvious question. How did a working-class London lad born just 140 days before the end of the 19th century develop into the most famed moviemaker in history?

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‘I had no intention of becoming a film director, you know,’ Alfred Hitchcock said in the 1960s. ‘It was quite a surprise to me.’ For one thing, cinema was still a new concept when he was born in 1899. The world’s first film studio, inventor Thomas Edison’s Black Maria in New Jersey, had only opened six years earlier – and that was to produce motion pictures that could only be viewed on a Kinetoscope (a ‘peephole’ device used by one person at a time). French visionaries the Lumière brothers were the first people to put on public screenings of films – a set-up recognisable as modem cinema – from December 1895. Edison began similar showings in New York four months later, while the US’s first dedicated cinema, on Canal Street in New Orleans, opened in July 1896. Another Frenchman, George Méliès, may have passed a career total of 200 short films in 1899, producing ground-breaking material that dabbled with special effects and tricks, but the art form was still astonishingly young and something of a novelty.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on a Sunday 13 August, in a flat above the Leytonstone greengrocers run by his parents, Emma Jane and William Hitchcock (the same shop depicted in the Leytonstone Station mural mentioned above). William Hitchcock didn’t live long enough to see his son succeed in the film industry but Emma survived until 1942, dying while Alfred was making the brilliantly seedy Shadow of a Doubt. She seems to have had a harsh side. When Alfred was young, she had a habit of making him stand at the foot of her bed for hours on end as a punishment, and she later stubbornly refused to leave England during the bombing of the Second World War. Perhaps this maternal steel explains why so many Hitchcock films feature strong, domineering, eccentric or vital-to-the-plot mothers. Think of the sinister Anna Sebastian in Notorious, the ambitious Jessie Stevens in To Catch a Thief, the kooky Clara Thornhill in North by Northwest, the distant Bernice Edgar in Marnie, the haughty Lydia Brenner in The Birds, or of course the ghostly presence of Mrs Bates in Psycho – characters who all appeared after Hitch’s own mother had died.

Alfred had siblings while growing up but still felt isolated, later describing his childhood as a lonely experience – in part because of his strict Catholic parents, in part because of his obesity. (He was never a slim chap. His mother, it seems, was a feeder.) In 1910, he began attending a Jesuit school in north London. He excelled academically and, he later said, developed a long-lasting fear of authority – a fear that had been seeded by an infamous incident earlier in life when his father arranged for Alfred to be locked up by the police as a punishment for misbehaving. ‘I don’t think the religious side of the Jesuit education impressed itself so much upon me as the strict discipline one endured at the time,’ he later told film critic Peter Bogdanovich.

An early ambition to be an engineer led to the teenage Alfred studying mechanics and electricity. But after his father’s death in 1914, he needed to earn some money so got a job as a technical clerk at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company near London Wall, where he also wrote some short stories for its in-house magazine. (The stories often contained themes and plot devices he would revisit in his movies, such as innocent people being accused of crimes.) Away from his day job, he also developed passions for art history, painting and the cinema, especially films starring comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This provides us with a nice connection: as the cultural commentator Kim Newman has pointed out, Hitchcock and Chaplin are the only genuine contenders for the title as the most influential Englishman in cinema history.

This enthusiasm for film was then given a release when Hitchcock speculatively sent some title-card designs to a new London-based film studio called Famous Players-Lasky and was hired in 1919. He was soon mentioned by name in The Times thanks to his impressive work with title cards, but in these hazy, embryonic days of the industry, being a jack of all trades was encouraged and Hitchcock – only just into his 20s – was quickly gaining experience in various production roles…

During my exploration of Hitchcock’s childhood stomping ground in June 2019, I left the station after admiring the murals and headed up to High Road Leytonstone, a busy main road that has changed a great deal since the 1890s. On the short walk there, I unexpectantly happened upon a large piece of graffiti on a wall on Harrington Road, which contains an image of Alfred Hitchcock smoking a cigar. Birds can be seen in the margins too.

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After a few minutes’ walk south, I found 517 High Road Leytonstone. William Hitchcock’s greengrocers once stood here but was long ago demolished, and there’s now a gaudy Jet petrol station in its place. It was busy as I wandered across the small forecourt, with cars fighting for space and a gang of car-washers at work.

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An ignored blue plaque on the modern wall to the side of the petrol station’s shop is the only acknowledgment of the site’s link to Leytonstone’s most famous son.

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I then had a neat piece of happenstance. I was standing on the pavement outside the petrol station, checking over the photographs I’d taken, when I became aware of a woman calling out to me from a passing car. It was a colleague of mine from my day job: a lovely woman called Ellen, who lives in the area. She pulled into the petrol station and we had a chat. We had both unexpectedly been given the afternoon off (IT issues: don’t ask), so talked about how we were spending our sudden free time. I said I was doing research for a blog, and it turned out she knew her Hitchcock history. She told me about Hitchcock’s Home, an annual event held at the nearby St John’s Church. Over two evenings in the church’s graveyard, Hitchcock films are played onto big screens. At the most recent edition, in July 2018, they showed Rebecca and Notorious.

After parting from Ellen, I next turned my attention to a building a few metres away from the petrol station. In 2014, as part of a £9m renovation project by the local council, its outer walls were covered with large paintings of birds – an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s 1963 film. A bird motif is also evident on the nearby pavement, while I clocked that a building further up the adjacent Lynn Road is called Hitchcock Place. The building in which he was born may be long gone, but Alfred’s presence, it seems, is everywhere.

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Ensconced at Famous Players-Lasky and working on a succession of silent movies, Hitch was first given the chance to direct in 1921. However, the production of social drama Number 13 was chaotic and was abandoned after just a handful of scenes had been shot. Hitchcock later called it a ‘chastening experience’, but he never forgot the generosity of its star Clare Greet who had pumped her own money into the project: Hitch cast her a further six times before her death in 1939. Around this time he also stepped in at the last minute to co-direct a frivolous short called Always Tell Your Wife (1923) and had a stint working at Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam. He was in his element in Germany, already being a fan of Weimar Republic cinema. One of his favourite recent films had been Fritz Lang’s fantasy drama Der müde Tod (1921), and now he got the chance to watch close up as another great German director, FW Murnau (he of 1922’s vampire classic Nosferatu), directed The Last Laugh (1924). Hitchcock was gaining knowledge and experiences, and soaking up influences from all around him.

Then came two enormous developments in his life – one professional, one personal. Hitchcock moved across to a new company, later to be known as Gainsborough Pictures, which was run by the producer Michael Balcon. Balcon was only three years older than Hitch, and had a glittering career ahead of him that would include such classic British movies as Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Hitchcock’s own The 39 Steps (1935). At Gainsborough, Hitchcock designed sets, wrote scripts, and acted as a producer. He also met his future wife: the editor and screenwriter Alma Revile. As well as a romantic partner, she soon became his de facto first officer, working in a variety of roles (often uncredited) on many of his films. One witness who saw Hitchcock direct during the 1920s said that he had a habit of turning to Alma after a take and asking, ‘Was that all right?’ The couple had been born within a few hours of each other, and married in December 1926. Their only child, Patricia, followed in 1928 and she went on to appear in a few of her father’s movies. Towards the end of his life, at a celebratory dinner thrown by the American Film Institute on 7 March 1979, Hitchcock said that he wished to pay special tribute to four people who had given him affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration: an editor, a writer, a mother and a cook. Then came the punchline: ‘And their names are Alma Revile.’

After seeing the area where Hitchcock had been born, I doubled back north, past the turnoff for the underground station and past St John’s Church and into Leytonstone’s shopping area, all the way up to 692 Leytonstone High Road. The pub here on the corner with Aylmer Road has had several names over the years, but was renamed The Birds in Hitch’s honour in May 2017.

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The bar was virtually empty as I walked in, being mid-afternoon on a weekday, but it was an eccentric, cool-looking place. I had a poor-tasting beef burger and a very nice beer while I had a rest and considered Hitchcock’s legacy. It depends of course how you define it – does compilation Elstree Calling count? What about the German-language version of Murder!? – but it’s reasonable to claim he made 53 feature films in a 51-year directorial career. In Western cinema, he stands at the most famous and arguably most revered movie director of all time. But how did it begin? What was the spark of life in the primordial soup?

‘Sir Michael Balcon is really the man responsible for Hitchcock,’ Alfred once said, referring to his time at Gainsborough. ‘One day Balcon said that the director – I worked with the same director all the time – didn’t want me any more. I don’t know what the reason was, some political reason. And it was then that Balcon said, “How would you like to become a director?” I had been quite content at the time, writing scripts and designing. I enjoyed it very much.’ The project Balcon had in mind for his protégé was a co-production between Gainsborough and the German studio Emelka. It was an adaptation of a novel by Oliver Sandys (one of several pseudonyms used by the writer Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis).

Filming on The Pleasure Garden got underway in March 1925 on location in Italy. The cast featured two American stars brought over to Europe by Balcon, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, but it wasn’t an easy shoot. The budget ran low, forcing Hitchcock to borrow cash from several people – including his cast and Alma. He had to pay a fine before Italian customs officials would allow the precious film stock into the country. And there was reportedly an awkward incident when an actress refused to film a scene in water because it was her time of the month (the innocent Hitchcock had to have this problem explained to him). Some filming was carried out in at Villa d’Este on Lake Como, where Hitchcock and Alma would later have their honeymoon and several subsequent holidays. The production then wrapped in August at Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich.

The resulting film shows all the exuberance and enthusiasm of a debut – despite its melodramatic and simplistic storyline, The Pleasure Garden is full of Hitchcockian energy and invention. It’s often been tagged as a ‘backstage’ drama, and it’s true that early scenes are set in the sometimes harsh world of a West End theatre. But we soon move away from that into torrid, and even lurid, romantic entanglements.

A woman with little dance experience, Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), wants to be a showgirl so is given a try-out by a haughty producer called Oscar Hamilton (Georg H Schnell, who had appeared in Murnau’s Nosferatu). She attempts the Charleston and impresses, so is offered a gig at five pounds a week. ‘You know I’m better than that,’ she replies. ‘I’ll take 20.’ She quickly becomes the star of the show, but her new friend and fellow dancer Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) grows concerned that fame is going to her head – especially when Jill moves out of their shared flat, begins socialising with an aristo called Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg) and cheats on her abroad-on-business fiancé, Hugh (John Stuart, an actor with a career long enough to take in 1978’s Superman: The Movie). At the same time, Patsy grows close to Hugh’s colleague, the lonely bachelor Levet (Miles Mander); they later marry and take their honeymoon on – that’s right – Lake Como.

However, Levet then also goes overseas for his job and falls ill. When word reaches Patsy, she wants to go and see him but Jill refuses to loan her the cash for a boat ticket (‘Can’t do, Patsy – I’m spending everything on my trousseau. The Prince and I will be married soon.’) Eventually getting the funds from her kindly landlords, Patsy arrives in unnamed foreign climes and discovers that Levet has been sleeping with a local girl. She flees, and an embarrassed and angered Levet reacts by drowning his new girlfriend. Patsy and the jilted Hugh then find solace with each other and fall in love, but Levet suffers ghostly visions of his murdered girlfriend so resolves to kill Patsy too…

Hitch later called The Pleasure Garden ‘just an assignment’ and dismissed it by implication when he claimed his third feature, The Lodger, was the first true Hitchcock film. But it’s fascinating to us now for more reasons than it just being a famous director’s debut movie. The most obvious is simply that it’s a very watchable and charming piece of work in its own right: engaging, visually ambitious and – thanks to the soap-opera plotting – never dull. But it also comes so fully formed. The Pleasure Garden is no rough-and-ready, first-draft version of the Hitchcock brand. The term auteur – which denotes a director being the ‘author’ of a movie – wouldn’t come into mass usage in film criticism until the 1950s, but here is a 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock showcasing so many of his personal concerns and favourite techniques that would run throughout the next half-century of his career.

Hitchcock would one day be the benchmark for how to tell a story through specific points of view, for example – Rear Window is the classic instance, presenting its entire world through the perspective of James Stewart’s housebound photographer. In The Pleasure Garden, we get a taster of that formal device early on: as rows of chorus girls dance on stage, we see enraptured men on the front row and are invited to watch the girls through their lustful eyes. There’s more risqué-ness later on too, such as when the young and attractive Jill and Patsy unselfconsciously undress while getting ready for bed barely minutes after meeting. Hitchcock would never be too far away from potentially saucy moments like this – see Madeleine Carroll taking her tights off in The 39 Steps, or the famously Freudian gag that sees a train entering a tunnel just as two characters become amorous in North by Northwest.

And the seeds that will grow into later obsessions continue sprouting. Perhaps we can detect the director’s strict Jesuit schooling in a moment when he both presents and mocks religion in The Pleasure Garden: Jill prays before going to bed, while the more earthy Patsy watches on bemused. Faith and its implications would play a major role in I Confess, while you can detect Catholic guilt in many other films. But this theme rarely if ever dominated story. A few diversions into realism aside – The Wrong Man, Frenzy – Hitchcock was always a keen proponent of the idea that movies are escapism. They can be dramatic, they can be meaningful, but they should always be first and foremost entertaining. Later in his career, he and his collaborators excelled at Hollywood sheen and a vibrant, Vistavision veneer – think of the sunny To Catch a Thief, which positively radiates with beauty and luxury, or the 3D sophistication of Dial M for Murder. But this wasn’t an idea that had to evolve. His first film has a glamour all of its own, whether it’s the Art Deco decadence of the West End fantasies being created by Oscar Hamilton or the exotic Mediterranean locations. (Of course, viewers in the 21st century also get a thrill akin to opening a time-capsule. The Pleasure Garden is not only a film set in the mid-1920s. It was *made* in the mid-1920s. Those cloche hats are genuine, not postmodern costume design.)

All that’s missing from the Alfred Hitchcock collection of motifs is perhaps his most remarkable: a troubled, enigmatic, sexy yet icy-cool blonde with a dark past. But that aside, brilliantly, The Pleasure Garden sees the director’s personality and preferences splashed across every set-up, every frame, like a master painter with his own unique brushwork.

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The final destination of my exploration of Leytonstone came after a 20-minute walk further north, via a footpath under the busy A12. On Whipps Cross Road, opposite a section of the ancient Epping Forest, I found the reasonably grand façade of the Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel. The establishment has no authentic connection to the great man himself, but it’s another example of east London commemorating his achievements. According to lettering painted onto a mirror in its small hallway, the hotel was opened on 27 August 1980 – just four months after Hitchcock’s death. Its bar is open to the public and has many photographs of Hitchcock and his leading actors on the walls. There’s also a framed copy of Alfred and Alma’s marriage certificate from 1928.

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I bought a beer from a pretty barmaid who was clearly bored out of her skull with the laddish regulars gathered around the small bar, then I sat at an outside table, resting my weary feet and enjoying the breeze coming off the Leyton Flats section of the nearby forest. It had been a good day.

The term ‘silent film’ is a retronyn, only coming into parlance once we had films that *weren’t* silent. (A similar process has happened with ‘analogue watch’, ’steam train’ and ‘hardback book’.) But, very sadly, a lot of silent films are silent in more ways than just having no soundtrack. Three out of every four British movies made in the silent era can’t communicate to us at all because they are now lost. And not even the revered Alfred Hitchcock has evaded this cultural cull. The footage shot for Number 13 is long since gone. Only a couple of reels of Always Tell Your Wife exist. Hitch’s second feature, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle, is one of the most sought-after missing films in cinema history.

But, wonderfully, The Pleasure Garden is still here. And if you look hard enough, so is Alfred Hitchcock – in spirit at least.

Eight lovely curls of hair out of 10

Notes and acknowledgements:

A new restoration of The Pleasure Garden was carried out by the BFI in 2012. Judging by the trailer, it’s an amazing piece of renovation and reconstruction – but inconviently for me it’s not available commercially. As research for this review, I therefore resorted to watching a poor-quality copy of a 1981 rerelease on YouTube. Produced by the film collector Raymond Rohauer, this version of The Pleasure Garden is the work of a hack: it’s missing many scenes (which have since been added back for the BFI version), while the attractive title cards have been ‘updated’ with drab plain-text replacements.

My walk around east London took place on Friday 21 June 2019. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019.

I drew on many different sources for the factual information contained in this essay, but a few online articles are worth mentioning specifically.

The Hitchcock Zone’s pages on The Pleasure Garden helped with some important details, especially the section that lists all the original title cards.

Hitchcock’s 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich has been endlessly helpful throughout this blogging project.

This post (from a fascinating website that’s well worth exploring in full) is especially strong on The Pleasure Garden’s production and archive history.

This website helped with local information about Leytonstone.

The full set of Leytonstone Underground Station murals can be viewed at Greenwich Mural Workshop‘s official site and at this walking-tours page.

Juno and the Paycock (1930, Alfred Hitchcock)

JunoandthePaycock

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Boyle family come into a large amount of money during the Irish Civil War, but does it make them happier?

Alfred Hitchcock once called Juno and the Paycock ‘a photographed stage play’ – and no other film he directed feels less cinematic. At times, as the am-dram cast drone on, you wonder whether he’s nodded off and forgotten to call cut. (Of course, this is unlikely for more than the obvious reason of professionalism: Hitchcock made the film expressly because he liked the play it’s based on so much.)

Set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, the story follows a family of meagre means headed by drunkard husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman). His wife, Juno (Sara Allgood), calls him a paycock – a pun on peacock because he poses but has little fight. The family also features invalid son Johnny (John Laurie, much later of Dad’s Army fame) and daughter Mary (Kathleen O’Regan), who’s on strike from her job.

There are money worries, failed romances, religious satire, a few songs, murder and a political edge thanks to the context of 1920s Ireland and the disagreement over how to form a new independent country. But nevertheless the drab, depressing substance combined with no discernible style in either the playing or the staging means that this film becomes very boring very quickly.

Three real Dublin people out of 10

Under Capricorn (1949, Alfred Hitchcock)

1949-Under Capricorn-poster

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 19th-century Sydney, a man reconnects with an old friend who’s keeping a dark secret…

Speaking in 1963, 14 years after its release, Alfred Hitchcock summed up a pesky issue with his period drama Under Capricorn. ‘I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, “We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.” They went in expecting something and didn’t get it.’ Not since his silent-movie days had the director made such a laidback film, and after two decades distinguished by thrillers, spy stories and capers, audiences wanted more of the same. Under Capricorn, however, is decidedly sedate and orthodox.

But while the plot is wispy, the emotion overwrought and the sloshy incidental music constant to the point of tedium, Hitchcock’s shooting style is worth discussing and also ties into a theme of time that runs through the whole movie.

In 1831 in Australia – the film’s title is a reference to being south of the Tropic of Capricorn – a new governor (Cecil Parker) arrives to take over the administration of the town of Sydney. Convicts were once transported there from Britain, and a delicate etiquette has now built up. Reformed characters known as emancipists are given respect and freedom as long as they behave.

One of the governor’s aides is his cousin, a happy-go-lucky yet ambitious Irishman called Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), who soon befriends shifty local businessman Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Then Charles is surprised to realise that he already knows Samson’s wife from when they were children – but Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman, in her third and final role for Hitchcock) is now a deeply troubled and isolated alcoholic. She’s more or less a shut-in, wracked with some unknown guilt and apparently under the spell of her domineering housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton). Over time, Charles and Henrietta grow close and he starts to tempt her out of her malaise…

Though based on a novel by Helen Simpson, all this feels like stage-play material – the kind of thing you can imagine a rep company wheeling out on tour. As well as performances that are being aimed at the audience as much as to other characters, one of the reasons for this is that virtually every scene is shot in a long, uninterrupted take. Writing for The Guardian in 2012, the film critic Joseph D A Walsh argued that the long takes ‘challenge audiences used to rapid cuts and edits’ and he’s not wrong. We’re drawn into a world where, as in the theatre, actors are allowed to dictate the pace and rhythm of each scene. Unlike classic narrative editing, which creates its own sense of time by chopping together moments in precisely chosen orders and at precisely chosen points, this kind of storytelling exposes the script and the cast: there’s little support and no hiding place. Sadly, with Under Capricorn, it sometimes means you feel ‘stuck’ like a theatre-goer with a poor view of the stage. Boredom creeps in a bit too often.

But whereas edits are rare, there are plenty of camera moves which dictate where our attention should focus. The camera tracks, glides, swoops and even climbs storeys of the Fluskys’ house. (During one take, the rig actually ran over Hitchcock’s foot – breaking his toe!) A great example comes early on in a grandstanding scene presented as one fluid camera move that lasts for seven minutes, takes place in several rooms and features 13 (!) actors. (It’s actually two shots stitched together by a disguised edit, to allow an actor and the camera to pass through a doorway.) The camera roves around a large, complex set as Charles approaches the Fluskys’ house; we shadow him as he eavesdrops on events from outside the window; we follow him as he goes inside and talks to Samson and Milly; he meets several other dinner-party guests, and the men all sit down to eat… but are then shocked by the unexpected arrival of a barefooted and distracted Henrietta at the door. As a self-contained example of what cinema can achieve, it’s an absolute wonder.

Other long takes in Under Capricorn are more static and less showy, essentially being played out in a locked-off frame, such as a key scene where Henrietta reveals her terrible secret to Charles… We’ve earlier been told that Samson is an emancipist who was transported to Australia for seven years for killing Henrietta’s brother; she followed him from Europe out of love. But now, in a monologue that dominates an astonishingly controlled take that lasts close to nine minutes, she spills the truth: *she* shot her brother and Samson gallantly took the blame. It’s a bravura piece of acting. ‘The crowning achievement of the story,’ says Walsh, ‘and, in my opinion, one of the finest performances of [Bergman’s] career.’

Hitchcock had used long takes throughout in his most recent film: the dazzling and experimental Rope, which is a 78-minute movie with just 11 shots in it. (He would have made the whole thing as a ‘oner’, but film cameras can only hold so much film at a time.) In that movie, however, the style is totally simpatico with the story’s real-time setting and the way tension is built inexorably and steadily. Trapped in a single apartment with a body stashed in a box, waiting to be found, the long takes enhance the viewing experience no end. However, while extraordinary moments in and of themselves, the long takes in Under Capricorn are – in comparison – hollow pieces of showing-off by a director who doesn’t seem engaged with the material. (Variety magazine agreed at the time, saying in its contemporary review that the long takes and moving camera are not ‘a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper storytelling.’)

When Hitch mentioned critics having to wait ‘105 minutes’ for the first thrill, he of course chose the figure as an arbitrary way of suggesting a point when the film was almost over. (Under Capricorn is 117 minutes long, so 105 minutes is close to 90 per cent of the way through.) But he was hitting on the truth in more ways than one. Yes, he meant that critics didn’t like the film because they were expecting another thrill ride like The 39 Steps or Notorious and felt short-changed. But his comment explains the failings of Under Capricorn in another way.

Throughout this story the past weighs heavily on many characters. It’s also a film about waiting – Samson for power and respectability, Charles for independence and happiness, Henrietta for romance and to be free of her history, the devious Milly for Samson’s attentions – but the people who have to wait the longest are the viewers, and not just because Hitchcock and editor Bert Bates make us wait for a camera cut. Early on in the story, newly arrived in Sydney, Charles is shocked to see a man carrying a shrunken human head on the street. Samson tells him there’s an illicit trade for such things because people use them superstitiously. It then takes 90 minutes for this plot point to come back into focus when we learn that Milly has been using a shrunken head in her attempts to drive Henrietta insane. Under Capricorn is clearly not a movie in a rush to deliver anything, thrills or plot developments.

At the time of its release, audiences even had to wait to see it. The New York premiere was held on 8 September 1949, followed by a US nationwide release on 8 October. But many other countries – Italy, France, West Germany, significantly Australia – had to wait until the clock had ticked over into the 1950s before they could view the film. Sadly, while interesting on an intellectual level, it wasn’t especially worth it.

Six men listening to the governor’s speech out of 10

Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)

SOATposter

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A tennis pro’s life takes a dark turn when he bumps into someone who suggests they each commit a murder on behalf of the other…

Flicking past at the imperceptible rate of 24 per second, there are something like 140,000 individual frames in Alfred Hitchcock’s classy thriller Strangers on a Train. But let’s focus on just 20 of them to illustrate, in a minor way, just why the director was such a master at visual storytelling.

1-3: The footsteps

We’re introduced to the film’s two strangers in an unusual way. To dramatise amiable tennis professional Guy Haines (Farley Granger) encountering the unsettling playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), Hitchcock at first only shows us the two men’s shoes as they march independently – and in opposite screen directions – through a train station. We sense that these two men are about to collide, and when they do it’s an underplayed moment as their feet accidentally touch under a table aboard the train. This gets Guy and Bruno talking, and after learning that Guy has a troublesome wife called Miriam who won’t divorce him, Bruno suggests a dark plan: *he’ll* kill the wife, if Guy murders Bruno’s rich father… Guy rejects Bruno’s plan, thinking at least in part that he’s not being serious, and exits their train compartment. Unknowingly, he leaves behind a distinctive monogrammed cigarette lighter, which Bruno realises might be useful…

4-6: The hands

Later Hitchcock uses thought-association cutting to suggest that Guy might be considering the macabre idea. After a row with his truculent wife, he’s on the phone to the new woman in his life and – raising his voice to be heard over a nearby train – says that he’d like to kill Miriam. He’s only speaking figuratively, but we then dissolve to Bruno’s hands held in a strangulation pose. The connection between problem and potential solution is clear. There’s then a undercut of a punchline: Bruno’s holding his hands like that because he’s having a manicure from his mother.

7 & 8: The stalking

Not waiting for Guy to agree formally to his plan, the psychopathic Bruno tracks down Miriam at a funfair. He sits behind her on a carousel, and from the way Hitchcock frames the actors and the way actress Laura Elliott looks over her shoulder we can tell that she enjoys the attentions of this stranger…

9: The murder

Screenshot 2019-05-19 15.55.46

Following her to a secluded spot, Bruno attacks Miriam and strangles her – we see the killing reflected in her glasses, which have been knocked off in the struggle. This arch way of filming the death is a typical Hitchcock flourish: he knows we watch these films for the ‘thrill’ of things such as murder, so how better to present it than in the lens of a pair of spectacles?

10 & 11: Film noir

Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions such as black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, morally ambiguous characters, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism and an atmosphere thick with menace. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, I Confess and The Wrong Man, but Strangers on a Train has its fair share of noir imagery. After Miriam’s murder, Guy realises that Bruno is waiting for him outside his home. We see Guy in an off-kilter camera angle that could be straight out of The Third Man, the 1949 British film that stands as one of the genre’s most beautiful examples, while Bruno stands hidden in the shadows.

12 & 13: Symbolism

When Guy then walks over to talk to Bruno – and is shocked by the lengths this man has gone to – Hitchcock uses one of the neatest tricks in cinematography. Bruno doesn’t want anyone to see the two men chatting, so stands back from the pavement, hiding behind a metal gate. Hitchcock frames him *behind bars*, implying where his criminal activities will lead him. Then, later in the same scene, as Guy gets sucked into Bruno’s plan more and more, it becomes his turn for the symbolism…

14-16: The tennis match

Guy wants nothing to do with Bruno, but can’t shake him. The murderer even shows up when Guy is taking part in a professional tennis tournament – and we spot him in the crowd because, while everyone else turns their head to watch the ball going back and forth, Bruno stares at his co-conspirator…

17: The memory

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As Guy resists, Bruno becomes more desperate and anxious – after all, he killed a woman he didn’t know expressly so Guy would then kill his father for him, but Guy hasn’t  followed through with his side of the ‘bargain’. We see something of the Bruno’s turmoil when he encounters Barbara, the sister of Guy’s current girlfriend. She wears glasses coincidentally similar to Miriam’s, and they trigger in Bruno a flashback to the murder – he also remembers Guy’s cigarette lighter, so to dramatise the idea Hitchcock superimposes the item onto the lenses of Barbara’s glasses. (By the way, Barbara is played by Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter.)

18 & 19: The fight

Guy soon realises that Bruno plans to plant the lighter at the crime scene, as revenge for Guy’s failure to go through with murdering Bruno’s father. The climax of the film is set, and we return to the amusement park, where Guy and Bruno fight on the carousel. Hitchcock has great fun with fast cutting and dramatic angles, while the fake horses of the ride appear alive as the two men fall onto the floor and the ‘hooves’ pound up and down near their heads…

20: The finale

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After an accident sends the carousel spinning out of control, Bruno is killed. The final image of the film is then Guy’s all-important cigarette lighter – Strangers on a Train’s MacGuffin – being held limply in Bruno’s dead hand.

Eight men with a double bass out of 10

 

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Torn Curtain (1966, Alfred Hitchcock)

TornCurtain

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an American scientist seemingly defects to East Germany, his fiancée follows – leading to them both being trapped behind the Iron Curtain…

Touted at the time of its release as Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie (which it was if you discount short films, Elstree Calling and the German-language version of Murder!), Torn Curtain begins with an impressionistic title sequence reminiscent of the James Bond series. Swirling, fiery images play opposite snatched glimpses of characters and incidents while lush music with a ‘full’, orchestral sound tempts us into a world of espionage. 

There had been four Bond pictures by 1965, when Hitchcock began production, but rather than the current vogue for spy films, the inspiration for Torn Curtain actually came from real life. Hitch had been fascinated by the defection to the Soviet Union of the British diplomat Donald Maclean in 1951, and specifically by what that meant for Maclean’s wife and family. Melinda Maclean followed her husband to Moscow about a year later, and Hitchcock wondered how her husband’s choice had affected her emotionally…

The film’s equivalent of Donald Maclean is Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist attending a conference in Norway with his British colleague and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrew). They seem to be deeply in love – our first sighting of them is when they’re cuddled up in bed rather than attending a meal – but Michael soon begins to act oddly. He’s sent obscure radiogram messages, then lies to Sarah that he has to fly to Stockholm. When she learns that his flight is actually heading for East Berlin – in other words, inside communist East Germany – she buys a ticket too and sits a few rows behind him…

It’s typical spy-movie stuff: paranoia and hidden agendas and acrostics and codenames. And it was far from the first time Hitchcock had worked in the genre; he’d dabbled with this kind of material on and off for 30 years. In fact, for the roles of Michael and Sarah, he’d initially wanted to reunite the stars of his phenomenally successful spy film North by Northwest: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. However, studio bosses insisted on actors who were more ‘current’. Julie Andrews was certainly that: she’d just had a massive hit with The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Co-star Paul Newman was hot from movies such as Hud and The Hustler.

Sadly, it often feels like their characters in Torn Curtain have never met before. It’s difficult to recall an on-screen couple in any Hitchcock film who have less chemistry. Hitch presumably wanted Andrews to be one of his classic blondes – an enigmatic female character with sex appeal and a cool exterior, but who is going through emotional turmoil on the inside. The actress, though, plays Sarah too straight, too blandly, to generate much interest. Newman, meanwhile, was a student of the Actors Studio and gives a down-to-earth, tightly wound performance that fails to connect with the heightened tone of the script. (Behind the scenes, Newman infuriated Hitchcock with questions and concerns. The director was more used to actors like James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman – people who showed up, knew their stuff, and did what they were told. When asked about his motivation in a certain scene, a frustrated Hitch is said to have told Newman: ‘Your salary.’)

Landing in East Berlin, Michael is warmly welcomed by the authorities and treated like a celebrity by journalists at a press conference that feels like it was inspired by the Beatles’ famously impressive first public appearance in America. It then dawns on Sarah what’s happening. Michael, seemingly disillusioned with his work at the US defence department being stymied, is defecting to the communists. He’s brusque with his fiancée, refusing to say whether he wants her to stay behind the iron curtain with him or go home.

Thankfully, we viewers don’t have to wait too long for the inevitable plot twist, which anyone who’s ever seen a spy film before will have seen coming from before the title sequence was over. After 40 minutes Michael gives his handlers the slip and heads out into the countryside to meet with a farmer. We’re let into his secret when he and the farmer – who’s actually an undercover agent – discuss how he’s only pretending to defect in order to get some vital information about a revolutionary new anti-rocket system. 

But of course there’s a problem. When he arrived in Berlin, Michael was given a bodyguard, who in reality is there to keep an eye on him. The gum-chewing, American-slang-loving heavy who Michael finds hard to evade is called Hermann Gromek and is excellently played by a sinister Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek shows up at the farm, Michael initially tries to bluff his way out of the problem – but then must kill Gromek in a blackly comedic scene that’s the highlight of the whole film. With no incidental music to take the edge off the violence, Michael and the farmer’s wife try to subdue their enemy by strangulation, a stabbing, a shovel attack and eventually by forcing his head into a gas oven. (A German gassed in an oven? Hitch was aware of the implication, but later said it wasn’t a political comment.) The scene is a deliberate deconstruction of the spy-film cliché of an easy kill – Gromek is clinging onto life for a long time – and is totally gripping.

Elsewhere, regrettably, some of the filmmaking has not dated well. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to have a high tolerance for artificial devices such as rear-projection screens for scenes in moving cars and matte shots to extend sets and locations. All well and good for a movie made in the mid 1960s. Less excusable, however, is his decision to build an entire – and entirely fake-looking – park on a soundstage for a key scene that comes after 69 minutes. Knowing Gromek’s death will be discovered sooner rather than later, Michael takes Sarah aside and admits that he’s on a secret mission. In a neat trick that Hitchcock used in other films too – Topaz, for example, and North by Northwest – we don’t actually hear the dialogue because it’s information we viewers already know. But the plot swings here: now, Sarah is in the know.

Michael had buried Gromek’s body, but is rumbled when the taxi driver who delivered him to the farm reports seeing Gromek there too. (The taxi driver is played by American actor Eugene Weingard, who went by the stage name Peter Lorre Jr. He actually had no connection to the Hungarian-born star who had appeared in two Hitchcock films in the 1930s – aside from a slight resemblance. The more famous Lorre attempted to stop Weingard using the name, but after the former’s death in March 1964 the latter was free to pretend they were related.)

So the pressure is mounting. Seeking out a famed rocket scientist, Michael tricks him into revealing the secret equations he needs to take back to the States. With the sneaky plot now played out, Michael and Susan then flee down their escape route, which involves a bus service run by the resistance, some help from an eccentric Polish aristocrat (Lila Kedrova’s Countess Kuchinska) and a showpiece finale at the ballet that brings to mind the Albert Hall sequences in Hitchcock’s two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

There’s plenty to admire and enjoy in Torn Curtain, whether it’s the Hitchcockian touch of demonstrating how cold a room is by showing someone breaking up the ice that’s forming in his glass of water, or the cat-and-mouse sequence in a museum that has echoing footsteps creating tension and menace. The blocking – the relative positioning of the actors in a scene – also tells the story just as much as dialogue, such as the distance between Michael and Sarah when she thinks he’s a traitor compared to later when she’s learnt the truth.

However, it’s far from a wholly successful film. It mostly feels too safe, for example. This is the story of a man taking the enormous risk of going undercover in a communist state but it lacks the cynical edge and – Gromek’s death scene aside – the sense of danger seen in other 60s spy films like The Ipcress File (1965) or even the Bond series. Hitchcock also seems to get bored with his lead characters: Sarah in particular goes missing for long stretches, while in the second half of the story both she and Michael feel like passengers rather than drivers of the plot. 

Seven men in the hotel lobby out of 10

Note: In a 1999 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that as a teenager he’d sneaked onto the set of Torn Curtain to watch the filming. He lasted 45 minutes before someone realised he shouldn’t be there.