Jamaica Inn (1939)

Those who are used to Hitchcock’s Hollywood productions will find a great many surprises among the genres of his earlier films made in England. But although very different from his “classic” suspense thrillers, these films should not be dismissed off-hand. Many show excellent qualities and you can see Hitchcock perfecting his skills. The last film of any kind that Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood was the historical thriller Jamaica Inn.

Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

The film centers around Jamaica Inn on the coast of Cornwall (a real place, apparently still in business) which is the base of operation for a band of cutthroats and plunderers, who lure ships to run aground on the rocky shores. To this accursed and feared place, young Mary (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to visit her aunt, who is married to the innkeeper. The plot thickens as one of the gang members (Robert Newton) is suspected of taking loot for himself. From there on it is a sometimes tight, sometimes slightly contrived plot of chases, changing loyalties and secret identities.

It appears that neither Hitchock himself nor Daphne du Maurier (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) liked the finished film. Certainly, it does have a number of shortcomings, but it is nevertheless worth watching. It has a dark and eerie tone which, coupled with some unexpected comic relief, gives the film a unique creepy feeling. Jamaica Inn may not be among Hitchcock’s greatest films, but regardless of what people say, it is far from one of his worst.

This film is best enjoyed as part of Hitchcock’s legacy, but another good reason is Charles Laughton who plays the bad guy. I have seen few films with Laughton, but I find that he is always excellent. Even though Maureen O’Hara (also good) may nominally be the protagonist, Laughton tends to take over and dominate the picture, all for the good. Other films with him at the Internet Archive include The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Captain Kidd (1945).

Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

Jamaica Inn
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)

Downhill (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock’s early films are only rarely the suspense filled thrillers that we are used to from his later works. There are many dramas and a few comedies. Some are interesting only for tracing Hitchcock’s development, but a few are genuinely good. One of those is Downhill.

downhill

Downhill was the second time – after The Lodger (1927) – that Hitchcock used Ivor Novello as his leading actor. Novello, at the time highly popular, also worked on the script. Some believe that the story reflects Novello’s attitudes towards women. He was apparently a homosexual, and the women in Downhill are for the most part treacherous, deceiving and seeking lust or riches. This is a pretty risqué story, even though some of the moral implications may seem very dated today.

Another important theme is that of friendship and trust. The friends Roddy (Novello) and Tim (Robin Irvine, also very good) go to the same school and are interested in the same woman. When Tim makes her pregnant, Roddy takes the blame and is consequently expelled from school and disowned by his father. This is the start of his moral and economic downhill ride in society, a ride which is sometimes depicted with brutal sincerity.

Hitchcock’s image compositions are terribly elegant, sometimes bordering on overdone. The influence from German Expressionism can be clearly seen (F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) was one of Hitchcock’s major sources of inspiration). In fact, had this film been made in Germany, I am sure it would have been considered part of the German Expressionism.

This film is best enjoyed if you do not expect a “regular” Hitchcock. Downhill is a good silent drama, and Hitchcock is experimenting successfully with visual elements that he were to re-use later in many of his thrillers. The theme of the falsely accused is also used to great effect here. But no thriller or horror elements are to be expected, so while the lover of silent cinema is likely to enjoy this, the casual Hitchcock fan may find it a disappointment.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill (1927)

Downhill
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (969 M)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog (1927)

I think it is safe to say that Alfred Hitchcock is best remembered today for his many suspenseful horror films and drama thrillers. His production of silent films is considerably less well-known, though some of them are not bad at all. In the 1920s, he was still perfecting his genius, but the fantastic storytelling skills can clearly be seen even in these early works. This is especially true of The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger was in fact the first film (as well as the only silent) in which Hitchcock developed his favourite theme: that of someone accused of a terrible crime and fleeing from justice. The police is investigating a series of murders in an area of London when a young man appears, seeking lodging with an elderly couple. The couple has a beautiful daughter, who is a perfect match for the muderer’s victims. They soon start to suspect that the young man may in fact be the killer, but they need evidence.

In my opinion, Hitchcock succeeds even better here than in many later films, such as The 39 Steps (1935) or Young and Innocent (1937), in upholding the suspense. Up until a few minutes from the end, the audience is never quite sure whether the protagonist is guilty or not.

Of all the films in Hitchcock’s output, this is perhaps the one that most clearly shows his debt to German Expressionism. A few years previously, he had been present during the filming of the great expressionist F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Der letzte Mann (1924), and the influence can be clearly seen here.

The Lodger was not only Hitchcock’s first suspense thriller, but also the first film where he made his famous cameo appearance. The reason is said to have been that he had to fill in for an extra who did not show up. The cameo is so hard to spot that there is no way I would have seen it if I had not known beforehand where to look, but if you want some sport you can try to spot him for yourself.

This film is best enjoyed by Hitchcock enthusiasts who want to explore the master’s early work, but it has quite unfairly fallen into the shadow of Hitchcock’s later production. The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog has many good qualities, and is quite able to stand on its own legs. In the category of silent suspense thriller, it holds up well to the competition. In addition, this was without a doubt the peak of Ivor Novello’s short career in the movies. The film is worth seeing for that reason alone, since he was a fine and unique actor.

Ivor Novello and June Tripp in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: Excellent; orchestral music synchronised with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

The 39 Steps (1935)

About two thirds of Alfred Hitchcock’s production from the 1930s is available at the Internet Archive. There are also a handful of his 1920s silents, but only the rare oddity from later in his career.

Those 1930s films are an odd bunch. Some films, such as the historical drama Jamaica Inn or the comedy Waltzes from Vienna seem like very surprising choices of scripts and themes compared with the films that have become his true legacy. Others clearly point the way to his great Hollywood thrillers. This is especially true for The 39 Steps.

Robert Donat on a train in Alfred Hitchcock's  The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps is arguably Hitchcock’s best 1930s film. The production values are higher than his earlier productions and some of those immediately following, partly due to a higher budget. Hitchcock had a sometimes unfortunate love for sound stages, rear projections and scale models in favour of outdoor shoots, things which are far less conspicuous in this production.

Hitchcock here for the first time manages to combine two of his favourite themes: spies and the innocent man on the run. This is definitely an essential work in his career, foreboding many of the films to come. It is not known to me why this shift came about, but there can be no doubt that this was the kind of story that Hitchcock liked to work with.

The film is also famous for a segment where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (playing the hero and his very unwilling lady) have to make a getaway while handcuffed to one another. Even though this part of the film is little more than ten minutes in length, it feels much longer due to Hitchcock’s expert way of making the most out of the situation’s drama.

This film is best enjoyed with good image and sound quality. Several versions are available at the Internet Archive, and I haved naturally linked to the best one. When I first saw the film myself it was from a very poor quality DVD, which was not as enjoyable as I would haved liked. This version is much better and has actually helped to raise my esteem for this movie to even greater heights.

Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

Young and Innocent (1937)

One of Hitchcock‘s most common themes, and one which remained with him for almost his entire career, is that of an innocent man (or woman) who has to flee from the authorities in order to clean his name. There is also bound to be a bit of romance and love along the way. Hitchcock’s most famous movie of this kind was perhaps North by Northwest, but he used it many times, even in one of his early silent films.

Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney in Alfred Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent (known as The Girl Was Young in America) is a typical example. Here we see young Robert who happens to be the first to find a murdered woman. It turns out that the murder was committed with a belt from a raincoat, just such a raincoat that Robert claims was stolen from him earlier. To make matters worse, Robert appears to have a motive since he had unfinished business with the woman.

Hitchcock’s way of telling the story is typical. There is never any doubt about where our sympathies are supposed to lie, just as there is never any real doubt that the ending will be a happy one. So very soon after the film has begun, we know pretty much how the story will end. And even so, Hitchcock manages to enthrall us, and makes us stay spellbound right up to the very end.

The excitement in this kind of Hitchcock story stems not from the uncertainty about the ending, as in a good whodunnit, but in what way we are going to get there. Our protagonist is placed in a seemingly endless series of predicaments, each of which seems nearly without escape. Thus, Hitchcock manages to build simultaneously upon our inherent demand for security and our wish to be excited and just a little bit terrified.

It is interesting that the novel upon which Young and Innocent was based is originally a whodunnit, but Hitchcock took away and added elements until he had the story he was interested in telling.

There is a clear relationship between this “falsely accused” subgenre and the road movie genre, since the plot often involves the protagonist fleeing from place to place, trying to pick up clues or just staying one step ahead of his hunters. However, unlike a proper road movie, there is rarely much real character development evident in Hitchcock’s protagonists.

This film is best enjoyed for Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling techniques, not least the wonderful dolly tracking sequence through the ballroom and onto extreme closeup on the face of a band member. Brilliant and elegant.

George Curzon in Alfred Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

Four O’Clock (1957)

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is probably best remembered for his fantastic Hollywood films, although he had a long history before that as a director in Europe, and towards the end of his career, he produced and hosted a couple of popular TV series. In fact, back in the late 1950s and a couple of decades to come, Hitchcock was probably more associated with his TV appearances than with his movies.

One of those TV series was Suspicion, and Hitchcock directed the premiere episode Four O’Clock himself.

E.G. Marshall in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

E.G. Marshall plays a watchmaker who has concluded that his wife is having an affair, and he plans revenge. The episode begins as he tests a timer for an explosive device in his shop. He then plants a bomb and sets the timer in his own basement, making sure that no suspicion must fall upon his own person. But then things start to go wrong …

Four O’Clock is excellent in every aspect. It is tense, psychologically interesting, dramatic, full of nice twists, and with an ending that I, for one, was totally unable to predict. Hitchcock shows that even with a much smaller budget than his lavish Hollywood movies, he can still create a little masterpiece.

Suspicion is not so well remembered today as Hitchcock’s other TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which featured Hitchcock’s iconic caricature image, and which had every episode hosted by “Hitch” himself. Two episodes (The Cheyney Vase and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) of that series are available at the Internet Archive, although neither was directed by Hitchcock.

This episode is best enjoyed alone and late at night.

E.G. Marshall and Nancy Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

Four O’Clock
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Year: 1957
Running time: 48 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: E.G. Marshall
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (350 M)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

It may perhaps seem like constructed languages, such as Star Trek’s Klingon or John Carter’s Barsoomian, have only started to appear in movies and on TV during the past few decades. Sure, a language like Na’vi in Avatar (2009) that was created directly for the movie – with the complexity of a natural language and a large base of fan speakers – that kind of thing has not been seen before Klingon. But Esperanto, originally constructed as a tool for peaceful communication across borders, was used at least as early as the classic silent film Der letzte Mann (1924), and the earliest attempt to create a dedicated language for a movie may have been the subject of this week’s post, namely Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford and Dame May Whitty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The language in question is spoken in the fictional European country which through different sources is variously known as Mandrika, Bandrieke, Vandreka, etc. The film begins at a hotel in a small town where the only train out is delayed by snow.

The language can be heard in many brief dialogues throughout the movie, though without the original script, it is impossible to analyze whether it is actually a complete language with coherent grammar and vocabulary, or just so many nonsense syllables. One of the few sentences which is both easy to make out and easily translated is spoken as “Reinefetado eš fenito.” (We are out of food.) This would seem to vaguely suggest a Romance language, though some sources claim it is a mashup of many different European languages.

Constructed language can serve several different purposes on the silver screen. Often, it is used to provide credibility to a fantasy culture, such as the elves in The Lord of the Rings (2001) or the vampires in Blade (1998). But in The Lady Vanishes, this is not the main reason. Hitchcock could have just as well used an existing language, and an existing country.

The purpose is rather to create ambiguity about the underlying identity of the country. The interesting blog Reel Club has a post about Hitchcock’s political messages in this movie, and how he criticized England’s blindness in the face of the dangerous European situation. (In my opinion, Reel Club is perhaps overinterpreting some aspects, but essentially the reasoning is very good.) From that perspective, it is plain that Bandrika (the most common spelling, I think) is a Germany in disguise, and the Bandrikan language is part of that disguise. The viewer, of course, was supposed to infer as much, but there was no war and Germany could not be pointed out as the enemy just yet.

Over in America, about the same time, several films were released that used Esperanto for the same purpose, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1939). The technique is similar to that used in e.g. Dark Journey (1937), where the action is moved to a historical period (World War I) in order to provide the necessary setting for the political allegory.

Though far from Hitchcock’s best, The Lady Vanishes is competently made and in many ways a typical and very adorable Hitchcock thriller. Hitchcock’s amazing sense of perspective and focus is seen in a few instances, and as always, the plot holds a good deal of psychological interest. There is also a bit more comic relief than in most Hitchcocks.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of train thrillers. Hitchcock had an excellent sense of the dramatic possibilities offered by the limited space in a train.

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Dame May Whitty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)