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)

Number Seventeen (1932)

This has a good opening silent sequence and, let’s face it, a lot of early sound films are only any good in the silent sequences because plummy accents coupled with stilted awkward acting have not worn well. So a man arriving at a mystery house on a windy night and finding an apparently dead man sets up the film rather nicely but once Leon M. Lion turns up (the actual leading man – baffling) it becomes less entertaining and more confusing. Hitchcock went to town with the lighting and the camera angles, and why not? I don’t believe he didn’t think it a ropey script.

But, what does redeem it and what I remembered about it after a gap of maybe three decades since I first saw it, were the models – which are wonderful. The mix of models and live action in the train and car sequence is just brilliant. And very exciting.

Alma fact: co-scenario by
Appearance by a cat or dog: I can’t remember
Transport: a train, a bus, a ferry
Source: The Early Hitchcock Collection (Optimum Releasing)