The all-time most renowned director? It’s probably a toss-up with the Beard, although really, the latter’s nothing but a small-fry pretender who went off the boil quite early on. Hitch’s zenith may vary according to your tastes – anywhere from the mid-1930s to about 1960 makes for an entirely reasonable pick – but he offers so much choice, there’s more than likely something for everyone in there. The following, since I’m relatively youthful and/or don’t have a top-secret archive of rare and lost features, does not include his second film, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle, but everything else finds a placing. With the majority of the silent era, I was discovering them for the first time, and I’m unable to report there were any stunning revelations during that period of his finding his feet and stylistic personality. Surprises elsewhere? I dare say there are a few, albeit more so for those I don’t rate highly than those I do. So sit back, enjoy, and maybe have a glass of…
(1928) While many a Hitchcock buff will pronounce his silents untapped gems, so evidencing his preternaturally auteurish nature, the truth is that many of them are just plain hard work. The master himself was dismissive of this one as a “lowest ebb”, and much as I’d like to be contrarian, it’s difficult to disagree. Champagne magnate heiress Betty Balfour is cut off by dad Gordon Harker for being too much of a good-time girl so must go out and get a job. It isn’t a terrible premise, but the comic potential – never Hitch’s forte anyway – is left largely untapped, and the best turn comes from the bookended, ever-reliable Harker.
(1929) If the Isle of Man looks surprisingly luv-erly here, that’s probably because The Manxman was shot in Cornwall. A decidedly inert love triangle revolves around Carl Brisson (The Ring) being lost at sea while his louse of a best mate Malcolm Keen cops off with Brisson’s intended Anny Ondra. Guess who only goes and turns out to be alive after all? It might have helped were there a modicum of frisson here, but the wretched affair is resolutely dour and grim faced.
(1969) From early Hitch to late. You’ll find a few hardy souls willing to vouch for Topaz’s merits, such may be misguided allegiance to one’s favourite director. Even when said director has so clearly hopelessly lost his way. Perhaps Hitchcock surmised – rightly – that Torn Curtain’s more trad-spy elements had exposed a storytelling approach adrift from an earlier era. If so, remedying that by adopting a low-key, realist tone, complete with entirely unengaging characters and torpid situations, simply wasn’t the way. Topaz was based on actual events, which again, tended not to be the director’s forte. The result is Le Carré without the intrigue and at best some of the murky motivation, while Hitch’s anti-star impetus – after having Newman and Andrews foisted on him last time – leads to largely bland actors wading through largely bland scenarios.
(1928) The title is suggestive of sauce – “the worst… I’ve ever written” so said Hitch – but it would be something were it actually descriptive. Easy Virtue is all melodramatic misery and not nearly enough wallop. Poor Isabel Jenkins is preyed upon by her portrait artist, who winds up dead when her hubby intrudes and intervenes. Then new love beckons, until she is thoroughly maligned by the family of her subsequent beau. Several notable stylistic sleights of hand suggest the future master at work, but it’s otherwise easily skipped.
(1927) Ivor Novello stars in an adaptation of his co-penned play, playing about half his age as a college lad of means who ends up stricken. As with the above entry, Novello’s character is accused of impropriety (it were his best chum what done it), and dad wants none of his protestations. So off Ivor engines, in due course winding up working as a Paris gigolo (I know). If the subject matter is again on the side of drudgery, particularly as Novello reaches rock bottom, there’s at least a succession of intermittently humorous touches to lighten the proceedings.
The Pleasure Garden
(1925) Hitch’s first, and setting out the stall for the melodramatic fare that would constitute the better part of his silent period. Virginia Valli is a chorus girl who takes Carmelita Geraghty under her wing. Geraghty returns the favour by being a right cow, and Valli marries unwisely to a hubby who breaks bad in Africa. Worth noting for faithful hound Cuddles, who not only knows his dog biscuits, but also a good prospect for Valli when he sniffs one out.
The Farmer’s Wife
(1928) Comedic larks abound as widowed Jameson Thomas decides he should wed again. Alas, his endeavours prove daft, desperate or hopelessly out of his depth, all the while failing to notice the prize catch right under his nose (Lillian Hall-Davis). Thomas’ farmer works his way through a series of failed proposals, either through lacking the necessary well-oiled romancing charm – he’s unable to say the right thing and invariably insults his prospects – or because he’s laughed out of town (he’s too old, or he’s too keen). The material isn’t exactly up the director’s street, but Thomas’ disasters are at least watchable. Meanwhile, the true treasure of Hitch’s silent run, Gordon Harker, is a very welcome presence as the farmer’s handyman, the superbly named Churdles Ash.
(1932) Very slight and very short, this one, a Dick Barton tale in all but name as various parties descend on the titular address with various motives, aside from apparently motiveless comic relief Leon M Lion. A body, a stolen necklace and a series of subterfuges can do nothing to pique the proceedings, mostly because the characters and motivations lack dramatic heft. While the climax is an admitted assault of cheap model work, Hitch delivers it for maximum effect.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
(1955) The director’s only remake of his work, and vastly inferior it is too. Sure, he had the star wattage of James Stewart, who is surprisingly well supported by Doris Day – casting a lightweight singer-star would work out less well with Torn Curtain – but there’s very little that tells you why he thought the venture was merited, or attests to inspiration. The screenplay isn’t nearly as much fun as the 1934 picture. Stewart’s character is lavished more “hero” moments, but his everyman status is much less engaging than Leslie Banks’ in the original. True, the Morocco location – when it isn’t doubled in the studio – adds some production value. And the Albert Hall climax is more consummate, but it isn’t actually better. Some of the marital interaction is interesting, and cruel on Stewart’s part, but that also rather works against it. The Man Who Knew Too Much sells itself as a fun romp, but it isn’t really.
(1964) Nor is Marnie, but that’s entirely intentional. Tippi Hedren fails to make an unlikeable character sympathetic, while Sean Connery brings his innate thuggishness to the fore as the man who decides he can tame her thief through amateur psychology and, er, rape. After three pictures at the top of his game, with his finger on the pulse, Hitch finds himself out of touch and all at sea. The production is awash with ungainly process shots (that godawful horseback material) and there’s no spark between the leads; at least that might have ensured the tawdry relationship was compelling. The director still manages to offer a bravura theft sequence involving an omnipresent cleaner, but anyone arguing Marnie’s unfairly dismissed is barking up the wrong tree. Or just barking.
(1965) And here’s further evidence that Hitch’s mojo was evermore AWOL as the sixties progressed. He had two big stars, both miscast, with a turkey of a screenplay. Involving a far-fetched – so far-fetched, it has to be ditched almost soon as it’s in operation – scheme to steal defence secrets from the East, it finds Newman’s unlikely scientist defecting. Oblivious but loyal fiancé Andrews tags along, so causing him even more problems. Torn Curtain might have had serious suspense potential, but much of it is wasted. By leaps and bounds the best sequence, and a reminder that Hitchcock could still deliver when he was sufficiently motivated, finds Newman discovering just how hard it is to kill a man.
The Wrong Man
(1956) Not really the director’s strong suit, realist drama. It’s easy to see why he was attracted to this true story of a wrongly stitched-up family man and musician, played by Henry Fonda, since that mistrust of authority –being innocent is no guarantee of evading accusation and punishment – was an abiding obsession in his work. Fonda is good, so is Vera Miles, but the diligence with which Hitchcock sticks to the facts of the case is ultimately at the expense of the drama, and there are limited avenues of interest once the nightmarishness of the incarceration is concluded.
Juno and the Paycock
(1930) Hitch adapts a Sean O’Casey play. He opined that the results were poor as he was bereft of any inspiration; he was basically stuck filming it as was. In a sense, that’s fair. Juno and the Paycock’s origins are very plain, and it’s clearly an actor’s showcase rather than a director’s one. But O’Casey also has much to say and plot as he weaves his tragi-comic themes inexorably towards an unremittingly despairing ending. There’s also ample opportunity for the cast to make a mark. Edward Chapman, playing well beyond his years – John Laurie, older than Chapman, is his son – is the titular paycock (peacock), who believes he is to receive a large inheritance. Laurie, meanwhile, is feeling the burden of having informed on a fellow IRA member. As a Hitchcock movie, it’s nothing special, but it succeeds in holding the attention.
(1927) No, not Hitch’s stab at J Horror. Rather, this is his boxing picture, and just like Rocky, it’s a melodrama at heart. Lillian Hall-Davis ditches Carl Brisson as soon as Australian heavyweight Ian Hunter drops him in the ring. Why he wants her back is anyone’s guess, but his devotion means that, unlike many of the director’s silents, there’s a degree of dynamism informing the proceedings. Also notable for another fine comic turn from Gordon Harker as Brisson’s trainer.
Waltzes from Vienna
(1934) A biopic of a great composer? Who does Hitch think he is, Ken Russell? He didn’t think much of it, and it’s certainly true that Waltzes in Vienna is patchy. Nevertheless, the generational conflict between younger Strauss (Esmond Knight), mocked by his successful dad (Edmund Gwenn being a right bastard), ignites a spark that carries it through the soft spots. Junior is, of course, the real talent of the family, however much dad may be getting all the public praise, so the question is how Strauss the Second will win applause himself. The sequence in which young Johann is inspired to compose The Blue Danube by the operations of a bakery is itself rather inspired.
(1939) Anticipating the gothic bite of Rebecca, Hitchcock ensures this preceding Daphne Du Maurier adaptation is an atmospherically conjured affair. Unfortunately, however, Jamaica Inn lacks the requisite sustained drama. That might have been because he was forced, through the vagaries of star casting, to drop the tale’s whodunit element. Charles Laughton, with whom the director got on very well – one must presume he didn’t offer Hitch a sandwich with a not-so-choice filling – is on prodigious form, however, and there’s strong support from a debuting Maureen O’Hara along with Robert Newton, Leslie Banks and Emlyn Williams. Occasionally gutsy and grisly, but ultimately falling short in the crucial area of plotting.
Rich and Strange
(1931) A striking-enough premise – a thoroughly middle-class couple consigned to daily drudgery decide to break with the routine and go on a cruise, only to discover all that wild abandon isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. There are too many missed humorous opportunities here there, the story settling instead for romantic entanglements, mostly between Joan Barry and Percy Marmont’s dashing commander while hubby Henry Kendall is laid up with seasickness (don’t worry, though, he’s soon falling for Betty Amann’s fake princess). A strong infusion of morality play, then, although whatever compass bearing Hitch is taking, it doesn’t appear to include kindness to cats.
The Skin Game
(1931) This one goes quite well with Juno and the Paycock, if you’re in the mood for Hitch fanning the flames of familial tragedy. Not really his speciality, then, but nevertheless fitfully engaging. The Skin Game boasts a thunderous performance from everyone’s favourite – unless you, wrongly, prefer Sir Dickie – Kris Kringle Edmund Gwenn as a morally bankrupt commoner intent on divesting the local landed gentry of their crumbling heritage, with very dirty tit-for-tat results. The picture might have been better with a greater counterweight in sympathies, as there’s never any chance you’re going to see things from Gwenn’s point of view. Still, it’s a fine and fiery performance, and there’s a decent suspense – of a sort – sequence at an auction as the feuding clans compete for a crucial property.
(1949) Like Jamaica Inn, this is one of the director’s rare period pieces. And like that picture, it doesn’t really work. Hitch admitted to having been star struck, in terms of pridefulness over both his leading lady and the project. Ingrid Bergman is a sous in an unhappy marriage to Joseph Cotton’s rich businessman. She then falls for her cousin Michael Wilding. Wilding’s good, but most memorable is Margaret Leighton’s jealous housekeeper. The real sinker is that Bergman’s forlornly wet throughout, making it nigh on impossible to care for her plight. Notable for the director’s use of very long takes, a follow up to his much more successful experiment with the same in Rope. Under Capricorn is set in Sydney but was filmed in England and California; while there’s a surplus of flourishing costumes, the show is marked by a conspicuous absence of local flavour or authenticity.
The Paradine Case
(1947) Hitch thought Under Capricorn lacked a sense of humour, and it’s certainly the case that his best pictures have a blackly comic streak in common. The Paradine Case headlines Gregory Peck, an actor you don’t really want as your lead if you’re after a few laughs. But then, The Paradine Case is another very self-serious affair when it comes to the lead character. You have to look around the edges for twisted wit, of which there’s an abundance. Most of it courtesy of Charles Laughton’s judge, a complete bounder when it comes to Peck’s suffering wife Ann Todd and a real brute when it comes to the courtroom. Although, Peck, besotted with his defendant Alida Valli, who is accused of murdering her husband in consort with Louis Jordan’s valet, is really out on a limb and firing wildly. The plot never quite satisfies, but the second half’s trial dramatics are at least well sustained, and there’s welcome assistance from Leo G Carrel, Charles Coburn and Ethel Barrymore.
(1953) One of Hitch’s over-earnest efforts (see also The Wrong Man), I Confess is perhaps unsurprisingly keyed in to both his Catholicism and abiding fear of authority and false accusation. He experienced problems with method-man Montgomery Clift, but the actor’s ability to imbue his priest with an interior life, that of a man observing the sanctity of confession even when it leads to his trial for murder, is actually one of the picture’s stronger qualities (the limitations of the part aren’t really his fault). Less so, some of the one-note supporting characterisations – in particular, OE Hasse as the confessor and guilty party – and plot contrivances. Some fine acting from Dolly Haas and Karl Malden, though, and since we’re privy to a full trial, the sense of outrage at injustice plays rather better than in The Wrong Man.
The Trouble with Harry
(1955) The Trouble with Harry drips with knowing quirkiness; just as with the opposite extreme of over-seriousness, this was never the director at his best. The film’s definitely funny, and Shirley MacLaine is an absolute delight – not something you’d always be able to say – but there’s a prevailing sense of trying too hard and so failing to hit on the appropriate farcical furrow. Miscommunications and misapprehensions galore result from the discovery of a corpse on a hill in a rural New England idyll. Affected parties include widowed MacLaine, spinster Mildred Natwick, tugboat captain Edmund Gwenn and artist John Forsythe (doing his best Bogart). Numerous quips, some of them quite lewd, and a cheerfully amoral tone characterise this one. It’s an easy go-to for “most underrated”, but there’s also a reason it isn’t all that rated.
Young and Innocent
(1937) An innocent-on-the-run plot in the spirit of the earlier The 39 Steps, but lacking the same inventiveness and spot-on casting. Derrick DeMarney and Nova Pilbeam evade the authorities after the former is accused of strangling the woman who has left him a wad of cash. Requisite tight spots ensue, and they pick up a star-witness tramp (Edgar Rigby) before decamping to the showstopper climax. Where they attempt to locate strung-out perpetrator George Curzon at a dance. By no means a standout in an already fairly crowded arena for this type of fare from Hitch, but breezy and likeable.
(1945) The bravura, Dali-designed dream sequence is the major attraction here (Spellbound was a significant box-office hit), rather than the rather stodgy psychoanalysis that proves the key to unlocking amnesiac Gregory Peck’s mind. Ingrid Bergman is the highly professional professional who inevitably falls for Peck, and when she succeeds, why, it’s a miracle, doctor! Peck isn’t really suited to Hitchcock’s heightened milieu, but the picture often engages despite the didactic methodology (I won’t call it science). Once again, we have an innocent evading justice, and Hitch offers a string of persuasive suspense moments with that in mind. Ironically, the dream sequence was – in the end – shot by William Cameron Menzies, owing to producer David O Seznick proving a massive pain in the arse. It’s a bit of a cart-leading-the-horse of a tale in premise terms, but the production itself is first rate, and Leo G Carrell and particularly Michael Chekhov are on hand to boost the supporting cast.
(1942) Like Young and Innocent, this is an on-the-run suspenser where the leads rather let the side down. Robert Cummings flees his aircraft factory in search of the true culprit when he is accused of sabotage, a trail that leads him across the country. The picture’s first half is the most successful, including a scene on villain Otto Kruger’s ranch, even if the propagandist speeches begin to wear thin quite quickly. Some have pointed to Saboteur as a precursor to North by Northwest, a comparison most recognisable when it comes to the climax’s staging at a national landmark: here, a desperate struggle atop the Statue of Liberty.
(1941) Hitchcock’s first really mischievous play with the star formula, an affinity that would see him through the next two decades. No, not his reunion with Joan Fontaine (Suspicion won her the Oscar she’d have better deserved for Rebecca) but Cary Grant, using his natural smoothness to suggest something less wholesome beneath (there’d be more of that with Notorious). Suspicion flounders partly because it’s one long tease that fails to pay off, but mostly because the revised ending Hitchcock agreed to makes absolutely no sense (and even with the line we’re sold, we’re left wondering just what kind of prosperous marriage can possibly ensue between such a silly fantasist and her caddish, unprincipled bounder of a husband). This isn’t even Grant at his duplicitous best either, because we’re obliged to see him entirely subjectively throughout. Nevertheless, there’s sufficient fuel in the premise for a series of strong sequences, and Suspicion also thrives on the director’s energising transatlantic relocation.
26-1 can be found HERE