The Master’s First Steps

In the first twenty-four features he directed, between 1925 and 1939, Alfred Hitchcock —always working closely with his wife Alma Reville (variously credited for assistant direction, screenplay, and continuity)—evolved from apprenticeship to technical mastery to an exuberant flowering that made him internationally celebrated. The celebrity led him quickly to Hollywood, and a generation ago it was still a commonplace among critics to lament that his American films had lost the ebullience of his best British work, by which they generally and understandably meant The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. By now the irresistible ascendancy of American masterpieces like Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho has eclipsed the earlier work so decisively as to make the old bias in its favor seem quaint. In truth only a small portion of Hitchcock’s British output was ever in wide circulation in the U.S., and until recent restoration work it was generally encountered in choppy, washed-out, often barely audible prints. To rediscover these films has been a revelation not just of the deep continuities in all his work, but of the world in which that work took shape. Hitchcock’s England permeates his early films with tactile immediacy. 

By contrast, the America of his later work is filtered both through the glossier surfaces of Hollywood filmmaking and through Hitchcock’s ever more pronounced bent toward abstraction. Even when he undertakes a close study of the American scene—with the location shooting of Shadow of a Doubt and the quasi-documentary trappings of The Wrong Man—he sees through the eyes of an outsider. In the British films, he works with all the elements that have formed him, larding every scene with infinitesimal clues and associations. Even the studio sets tend to have a grittier and distinctly unglamorous edge—a more lived-in look—whether it’s the rented rooms of The Lodger, the Underground car of Rich and Strange, the tobacco shop of Blackmail, or the cramped wings of the theater in Murder. With his eye for satiric types, Hitchcock sketches a nation of shopkeepers and policemen and moralizing dowagers, gossiping boarders, low-rent dentists, eccentric religious cultists, lecherous traveling salesmen, xenophobic cricket enthusiasts, and the occasional supercilious aristocratic landowner. The often rowdy world of popular spectacle constantly intrudes, with visions of chorus girls in dressing rooms, theatrical touring companies, acrobats, pratfalling comedians, dance halls, neighborhood cinemas, and (in two of his most memorable climactic scenes) Albert Hall and the London Palladium. London, with its crowds pressed on each other, its beckoning neon signs and careening traffic, evokes an urban chaos that would rarely figure in the American films.

It’s a rough and often harshly class-bound world, regarded with much humor but without sentimentality. The family who have taken in Ivor Novello in The Lodger begin to suspect him of terrible crimes but are loath to accuse him because “even if he is a bit queer, he’s a gentleman.” In Murder, when the famous actor Sir John (Herbert Marshall in his first film role) summons an impoverished stage manager to a conference, the latter walks fearfully toward him on a surrealistically sinking carpet. The crucial scene of Downhill shows the shop girl Mabel entertaining two boys from a tradition-laden  public school at Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe where she works. After they pass through a beaded curtain into a darker back room, she shimmies seductively and puts on a phonograph record (“I Want Some Money” by the Bohemian Band) while the two boys react uncertainly. The aura of adolescent sexual anticipation blends with glaring differences in social privilege, as Mabel flirts with the richer boy (Novello) while finally settling for his less affluent mate. Fleeting shifts of intent and reaction are conveyed in multiple exchanges of glances among the three of them, along with several interruptions from customers in the front room, all without a title card in sight: a fascinating scene showing how far Hitchcock could go in conveying complex interactions by visual means alone, the only real limitation being the inadequacy of Novello’s acting.

“The variety of material Hitchcock was working with gave him a chance to try his hand at a tremendous range of moods and styles, to veer from farce to tragedy to expressionist pattern-making. ”

Top of post: The 39 Steps; above: The Lodger

Hitchcock’s progression followed a zigzag line. Films that announced his future specialization in the suspense film, such as The Lodger and Blackmail, were interspersed with routine assignments, respectful literary adaptations, and the occasional bizarre experiment like Rich and Strange, a most peculiar mixing of disgruntled comedy and frustrated romance that sets its protagonists adrift with a boat full of Chinese pirates. Not yet definitively specialized, Hitchcock could try his hand at everything from the maudlin melodrama of Downhill to the lightweight shipboard comedy of Champagne.

None of these forays into other modes and genres were wasted efforts. The variety of material Hitchcock was working with gave him a chance to try his hand at a tremendous range of moods and styles, to veer from farce to tragedy to expressionist pattern-making. The elaborately plotted Murder may not be the most involving of his thrillers—there is a bit too much fussing about with handwriting samples and empty brandy glasses—but he takes advantage of the story’s convolutions to experiment at every turn. From the tumultuous opening pan as a neighborhood is aroused by the discovery of a murder to the final violent reckoning in a circus tent, it teems with discoveries large and small. The episode in which a police detective questions actors who are continually going on and off stage in the midst of his interrogation, switching instantly into alternate identities as they enter on cue, is a particular gem, with the added nuance of a cross-dressing performer whom the detective identifies as a woman before being advised that Handel Vane (memorably played by Esme Percy) is “one-hundred per cent he-woman.” (For reasons presumably having to do with the proprieties of 1930, the gender ambiguities made so apparent are disguised in the screenplay by the theme of race-mixing: Vane’s dreaded secret is his identity as a “half-caste.”) Hitchcock would never again take on such a meandering scenario—or at least not until Topaz—but he seems to have savored a project that managed to incorporate Hamlet, Tristan and Isolde, jury members speaking in chorus, grim-faced female prison guards, screaming babies, circus elephants, and the shadow of the gallows.

In contrast to the playful tinkering of Murder is The Skin Game, a relatively straightforward bit of filmed theater from a John Galsworthy play that Hitchcock had admired on stage. Aside from a bravura land auction scene in which he roves in and out among the crowd as suspense rises, there are no flamboyant displays of ingenuity here. But the play is a good one, the class conflict of landowning patrician against industrialist parvenu is savagely played out—with a well-mannered aristocratic matron whose capacity for cruelty in defense of her privileges, as enacted by Helen Haye, is quite breathtaking—and Hitchcock achieves an austere and tightly paced approximation of the German “chamber drama” style that admirably satisfies his own dictum: “The screen rectangle must be filled with emotion,” foreshadowing his later approach to the single-set stage dramas Rope and Dial M for Murder.

The Man Who Knew Too Much

With The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934—written, as would be the four films that followed, by Charles Bennett—he became identified once and for all with films of intrigue and suspense, and with The 39 Steps the following year he demonstrated once and for all an achieved mastery. There is not a missed step in its piling of invention on invention, its vaulting transitions, the way it sustains a tone simultaneously comic, erotic, and menacing. If the earlier films carry with them a sense of the humdrum oppressiveness of the daily grind, The 39 Steps asserts a romantic escape into a world of Hitchcock’s concoction. Its rhythm is that of the accelerated journey, the chase that is also a search, and in the process it delights in casting off all superfluous encumbrances of exposition and even logic to achieve “life with the dull bits left out.” The only reality is what is on the screen. The 39 Steps remains a miraculous singularity, a film at once inexorable in its forward impetus and buoyant in its continual topping of its own peak moments. To watch Robert Donat, on the run and concealing his handcuffed wrist in his coat pocket, mistaken for a political speaker and conjuring an impassioned oration on nothing at all out of thin air, while simultaneously speaking metaphorically to Madeleine Carroll in the audience, while sinister agents hover in the doorway preparing to arrest him, takes a matter of a few minutes but can be replayed indefinitely in memory—yet the scene is only one link in this work of musical perfection.

The burst of liberation carries over into Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes, films likewise shaped by the urgency of the journey, and forming with The 39 Steps a sunny plateau of energy and delight. Young and Innocent has always been the lesser known of the trilogy, perhaps because Derrick de Marney is no Robert Donat or Michael Redgrave, perhaps because the plot is casual and episodic compared to the sustained suspense of the other two. But the looseness is part of the film’s pleasure. Although it opens with a raging storm and a violent quarrel ending in murder, it’s essentially a comedy of youthful escape from adult authority, as the chief constable’s hitherto obedient daughter (Nova Pilbeam) throws in her lot with the wrongly accused fugitive. As they weave around country roads in search of a crucial bit of evidence—a lost raincoat—a picture of rural society is sketched in, complete with its hidden pressures and hierarchies: the gentry represented by the chief constable and his sister with her grand residence, the befuddled representatives of the local judiciary establishment, the farm folk bringing pigs to market, the lorry drivers at a roadside pub, the down and out drifters at Nobby’s doss house, the fashionably decked-out pleasure seekers dancing at the Grand Hotel to a jazz band performing the unforgettable “No One Can Like the Drummer Man” in blackface.

It’s like a final journey through an England of the mind, punctuated by brilliant bits of comedy (the multiple confusions of the children’s birthday party), spectacular effects (the car swallowed up in a collapsing mine), and finally the legendary camera movement (comparable to the celebrated “key” shot in Notorious) that wraps up the mystery in one sublime aerial glide through the restaurant of the hotel and across the crowded dance floor to arrive at an extreme close-up of a pair of twitching eyes. In short order we are left with an image of Nova Pilbeam smiling radiantly as she stands between her father and her lover, now reconciled. Hitchcock would rarely again manage such an unclouded finale, an ending that leaves us in a moment of thoroughly provincial contentment, all violent threats lifted and all conflicts of class and authority resolved. It is not a note he is likely to have sustained, or would have cared to, even if he had stayed in England. His reasons for going were professional, but he was probably right to feel he had nearly exhausted the opportunities the British film industry could offer him. He gained much by moving on, but one can still savor that part of local knowledge and ingrained familiarity that would inevitably be lost in the transition.


The series British Hitchcock is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through January 31, 2020.