The Master’s First Steps

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. ”

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