News and Commentary – Hitchcock in the Thirties

I’ve been thinking about the 1930s these days, and not in a good way (though if it’s any consolation, I think we’re in France, not Germany).  But in these dispiriting times, let’s reach for some movies-as-therapy, and remember that not everything about the 1930s was dismal—in fact it was a great decade for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. 

Hitchcock’s vast oeuvre can be divided into four periods (any one of which, on its own, would have left its mark on film history): silent films, British talkies, American movies made in the Hollywood studio system, and a final phase as an independent producer.  That second period, during which Hitchcock directed fourteen feature films, overlaps almost exactly with the decade of the 1930s. Those efforts include five gems, five more worth a look (or more), and four that you can safely leave to the completists. 

Something to treasure in these movies is how Hitchcock, trained in the silent era before transitioning seamlessly to sound, retained the beauty of that classical cinematic language even as he moved on to talking pictures. This hallmark is a pleasure that endured throughout his career (Hitchcock was a visual storyteller), but it was especially notable in the thirties, when the craft of silent filmmaking was not a relic of the distant past.  From that decade (more or less), here’s our AH top five:

5) Blackmail (1929): the first British sound film, it was actually released in a silent version as well. Even in this first go-round Hitchcock shows a subtle facility with the use of the sound. Blackmail also features some of the enduing themes that would be associated with the long career of The Master, including the complexity of guilt and its burdens.  (Everybody is guilty of something in a Hitchcock film, but usually not of what they are accused.)  And pay close attention to the thrilling apartment scene, which starts in shadows and ends in murder.  (Speaking of shadows, Hitch had the shadow of an ironwork chandelier cast across the upper lip of the villain, a winking suggestion of the even-then clichéd menacing moustache typically sported by such characters—a gesture Hitchcock described to Truffaut as “a sort of farewell to silent pictures.”

4) Sabotage (1936): Starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, Sabotage, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad, is especially notable for a number of attributes.  As he would often, Hitchcock toys with the relationship between entertainment and “real life”—here the bad guys use a movie house as a front for their dastardly deeds.  Sabotage also offers a virtual clinic in the Hitchcockian distinction between suspense and surprise—in this instance leading to the death of a little boy (and a dog!), a graceless and vulgar choice that Hitchcock came to regret and would never repeat. But those events do set up the movie’s signature set piece – magnificently silent – when an exchange of glances establishes the killer’s guilt, the presence of a knife, and the deliverance that follows.    

3) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): Hitchcock was so fond of this theme he remade the picture twenty years later with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day: a family on an exotic trip abroad inadvertently stumbles onto the secrets of a nest of assassins, poised to strike at a high official; to assure the silence of the adults their child is kidnapped, which motivates the time-sensitive, interweaving dramatic threads of which Hitchcock was so fond.  This earlier version, tighter and more emotionally complex, features a reliably compelling Peter Lorre.  And, as the image below suggests, the movie will leave you even more reluctant to visit the dentist. 

Man Who Knew

The Man Who Knew Too Much

2) The Lady Vanishes (1938): Released in Britain just one week after the low-water-mark of that country’s disastrous policy of appeasement (the disgraceful Munich Agreement—“peace in our time” Neville Chamberlain promised a cheering crowd), Vanishes saw through such illusions.  Seeing this film now – still a hearty entertainment – what jumps from the screen is how the film, set comfortably in the genre of the light-thriller, is darker, and much more savvy, about the prospects of doing civilized business with Nazi Germany.  In a career that (outside of the war) largely avoided topical concerns, here Hitchcock presents a stinging indictment of confused Britons, who simply cannot fathom what they have on their hands. The well-bred Englishmen in this film are shown desperately, and hopelessly, searching for a rational explanation as to why the menacing Germans have isolated their railway car.  Surely it must all be some misunderstanding.  “We’re British subjects . . . they wouldn’t shoot us in cold blood?”  Hitchcock’s film offers this answer: Yes, they would.

Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes

Before unveiling our top pick, let us appropriately favor suspense over surprise by first quickly summarizing the “best of the rest”: Rich and Strange (1931) is a fascinating and atypical film about a married couple on a round-the-world voyage—Rohmer and Chabrol rated it “one of the three best films of [Hitchcock’s] English period”; Secret Agent (1936) offers a morally complex spy picture with John Geilgud, Peter Lorre and – who knew – the future Marcus Welby, M.D. (Robert Young); Murder (1930) is often ranked higher but among other reservations we share the sentiment Hitchcock once expressed, speaking of this film: “I generally avoid” the whodunit genre, “because as a rule all the interest is concentrated in the ending”; Young and Innocent (1937) offers minor variations of standard themes (but the climactic shot was so inspired Hitch used it again in Notorious); Number 17 (1932), light as a feather, is nevertheless an amusing quickie.   

And now, for the jewel in the crown—our number one Hitchcock from the thirties: The 39 Steps (1935).  This movie has it all, in elements small and large: the creative use of sound, bravura silent sequences, implicit social commentary, effortless humor, just below the surface sexual fetishism (Hitchcock had this thing for handcuffs, which was only the tip of the kink-berg), theater-as-life and life-as-theater, a smartly paced evening’s entertainment—and, of course, the double-chase.  This was Hitchcock’s go-to scenario, and that with which he is properly associated: a regular Joe accused of a crime he did not commit is chased by the police (and dodging assorted bad guys), whist simultaneously racing to uncover the “true villains” before time runs out.  Oh, and there’s usually a girl.  You’re probably thinking this sounds like North-by-Northwest (or a dozen others).  39 Steps set the mold. 

39 steps 1

The 39 Steps: Not the Way This Date Way Supposed to End


39 steps 2

The 39 Steps: That's One Suspicious Husband


39 Steps 3

The 39 Steps: All The World's A Stage . . .