Sabotage (1936)

I know that Hitchcock had problems with Sylvia Sidney (though the stories say more about her than anything else) but she raised this film a notch for me. What an extraordinary face she had. It’s a shame she just missed the silent era with those expressive eyes. And can you imagine Celia Johnson and Sidney doing an eye off?





John Loder was pretty good too in a solid and humorous way although he towered over Sidney which was unintentionally comical. Oskar Homolka’s eyebrows were nearly as expressive as Sylvia Sidney’s eyes. It is a shame we don’t really know what his character’s motivations were. The film has several unexplored aspects such as how did the Verlocs meet, and where. Why is he happy to provide for her and her brother? Is it just altruism or is it a cover? Does he like running a cinema? Why is Mrs Verloc an American when her little brother is British (we are told they have only been in the country a year)?

I’ve seen this film described as a masterpiece which it patently isn’t, mainly because despite an explosion at the end, it actually just fizzles out. The climax of the film is Mrs Verloc’s killing of her husband for the death of Stevie and clearly Hitchcock and co had no idea how to wind up the film when the audience would have no stomach for her NOT getting anyway with it. Therefore, we know nobody is going to listen to her confession and that she couldn’t be punished because of what Verloc was responsible for so we just wait for the film to end. And that is done poorly with a halfhearted cinema evacuation and an off-screen explosion.

There are many great sections in the film – notably the scenes in the aquarium, the pet shop, Stevie’s journey across London, and Verloc’s murder. Mrs Verloc being haunted by images of Stevie are really well done particularly the boy running towards her out of the crowd. And Hitch was wrong, it was okay blowing the boy up, what wasn’t okay was blowing up that adorable puppy. People, be honest, we always care more the fate of cute animals, don’t we?

Finally, I love when Sylvia Sidney’s prowess with a needle is highlighted.Sewing a sail in 'Sabotage'This is Sidney in Dead End (excuse the quality):
Sylvia Sidney knitting in 'Dead End'

Alma fact: continuity
Transport: oh yes!
Animals: cat, canaries, puppies!
Source: Alfred Hitchcock – The Early Years DVD (Concorde Video)

Thanks to 1000 Frames of Hitchcock.

Secret Agent (1936)

I’m not really happy with my Hitchcock project. I don’t think I’m saying anything interesting! When I did my Buffy posts, I’d rewatch the episode and read the transcripts and look at the screencaps that people had made and then got to work. Basically I put some effort into it (even if the quality of the effort is debatable). However, considering how long it has taken Andy and I to get this far I’m not starting again so from the next film I’ll be better.

We watched Secret Agent ages ago so this is going to be even poorer than usual.

It is tempting to see more to this film but really it is just a potboiler with little depth.

John Gielgud – considering the man’s considerable stage actor, he had very little presence on screen – he was simply pleasant at best.

Madeleine Carroll – she was okay but her role was terrible – very few Hitchcock heroines are so useless – she didn’t use her wits or even her wiles – dull!

Peter Lorre – he was so creepy and not just in an intentional manner. Robert Young was also creepy – just take your hands off her!

Honestly, if it was not a Hitchcock, it’d be long forgotten.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock – The Early Years DVD (Concorde Video)

The 39 Steps (1935)

Hitchcock is on an exponential curve in terms of quality and entertainment. Just as The Man Who Knew Too Much was so much better than his previous offerings, this is an even more impressive improvement on that.

I don’t love it though (unlike someone else in my household), there are more likeable films to come with more endearing leading men. Robert Donat is an oddity, he’s only 30 in this but looks older, and he isn’t at all sexy or charming. The way he kisses Madeleine Carroll was almost guaranteed to have her turn him in and I don’t like Richard Hannay’s entitlement either (what would I have called this in the past? did I even notice it?) Just why does he think that Pamela should have known he wasn’t a murderer?

However, I love his turn at the political meeting, and Hannay’s nonsense isn’t that far removed from what a real politician might waffle.

What I love about Hitchcock’s films, is that there are so many good roles for women, and not just for leading ladies. In this, we have: Peggy Ashcroft so touching as the crofter’s wife (‘Glaswegian’ accent not withstanding), the uncredited Hilda Trevelyan at the inn who is a hoot in her misunderstanding of the situation between Mr and Mrs Henry Hopkinson, and poor doomed spy Lucie Mannheim.

Madeleine Carroll is fine as the lead though she actually isn’t in much of the first half of the film. I was surprised to discover that she was was once one of the most highly paid actresses in the world in the late thirties. She is certainly not immediately on my list of memorable actresses from that period. I love her dishevelled look while handcuffed to Donat and, of course, she rocks glasses.

There are few flashy Hitchcock touches, it’s almost as if he was confident that the strong story and good dialogue was enough. His way of not bothering to explain or show how, say, Hannay got off the Forth Bridge, or how he got from the floor of the house at Alt-na-Shellach to a local police station, or how Hannay and Pamela got from a Highland hotel to Scotland Yard, worked better in The 39 Steps than it did in the just choppy The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Best line: “It’s a whole flock of detectives.”

Alma fact: continuity
Appearance by a cat or dog: none
Transport: a train, a car, an autogyro
Source: Carlton

Thanks to 1000 Frames of Hitchcock.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

This film from the thirties was more progressive than a film from the fifties. I know I’m getting ahead of myself but the way Doris Day’s character is treated in the remake makes me shudder. So, back in 1934, the wife (Edna Best) actually saves her daughter using her Chekhov’s gun expertise, which is a great moment in a film of moments rather than a film of sustained storytelling.

It is also a film with a great cast: icy Cicely Oates, charismatic Frank Vosper (who died after falling from a liner), “silly ass” Hugh Wakefield, wonderful Leslie Banks with his two faces, and, of course, Peter Lorre who may have learned his lines phonetically but it’s his facial expressions that are memorable.

And then there’s sweet Nova Pilbeam (who is actually really annoying when she puts her mother off clay pigeon shooting) but takes part in the sensitive (incongruously so) ending when the traumatised girl is reunited with her parents.

Leslie Banks – right side

This scene at the dentist’s is just weird – notice it’s Leslie Banks’ left side

This scene works better in the remake

Yes, a mattress will definitely protect you against a bullet…

The mother saves the child

Appearance by a cat or dog: none!
Transport: glimpses of vehicles but no-one travels in any of them
Source: Alfred Hitchcock – The Early Years DVD (Concorde Video)

And finally, let’s not forget this shot of teeth

Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

Phew, what a relief it is to get past these early sound films which have, in the main, been very poor. There have been plenty of enjoyable scenes, fancy special effects and camerawork, and some nice performances but none of the films have been good as a whole. Even the famous one (Blackmail) is better as a piece in its silent form than in its sound version (“knife!” not withstanding).

This was no The Smiling Lieutenant that’s for sure. I can’t be bothered saying much more than that. The director clearly had no interest in what he was doing and I’ll draw the line there.

While I was looking for a suitable image, I realised that this film did have a redeeming feature and that was Frank Vosper. This screengrab doesn’t capture the joyful way he owned his entrance combined with a beautiful bit of hat throwing.

Good catch, Esmond!

Thanks (as usual) to the 1000 Frames of Hitchcock project for reminding me of Vosper’s performance.

Alma fact: co-scenario by
Appearance by a cat or dog: none
Transport: a carriage
Source: Le Chant du Danube (Universal France DVD)