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Alfred Hitchcock: The Early British Years

Updated on July 12, 2011
Hitchcock's famous profile
Hitchcock's famous profile

Even today, the films of Alfred Hitchcock resonate with audiences much like they did when first released. “The Master of Suspense” as he was well known, was probably an even greater storyteller. Hitchcock preferred what he called “pure cinema”, the ability to tell the story with minimal use of dialogue.

Fortunately for those interesting in building a Hitchcock collection, his career can be divided into three distinct categories; The British Years (1924 – 1939), the World War 2 Years (1940 – 1946), & the “Golden” Years (1951 – 1963). In today’s article, I’ll focus on his early British years and recommend a few films to get you started.

Hitchcock had been involved with the British cinema from the early 1920’s performing numerous tasks from writing to assistant direction. His third full length film, “The Lodger” had a profound impact on British cinema and acts as a template for many of Hitchcock’s legendary traits that followed. In particular a man being pursued for a crime he did not commit and the appearance of Hitchcock himself as an extra (his back is turned to the camera, but there is little doubt that it’s Hitch).

Fortunately for the DVD collector who wants a taste of those years without forking over a lot of cash, all of his important British works have been collected in modestly priced DVD sets. The film quality does vary from pretty decent (“The 39 Steps”) to somewhat hard to watch (“The Lodger”). Fortunately, “The Lodger” has been restored and released as a separate DVD.

With “Blackmail” (1929), Hitchcock had made the conversion to sound and what followed were several low budget films that varied in quality as Hitch was growing more comfortable and finding his way.

Peter Lorre makes his English film debut in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”, an excellent film that was remade with not as great an effect in 1954 with Doris Day and James Stewart. However, for the burgeoning collector I would recommend “The 39 Steps” starring Robert Donat, who would later beat out Clark Gable for the Best Actor Oscar of 1939 in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”.

Donat plays a visiting Canadian who meets an attractive girl at a stage show, later that evening he discovers her dead in his living room and is subsequently sought for her murder. In order to clear his name, Donat has to break a spy ring that’s centered on the “39 Steps”. The plot is pure Hitchcock filled with suspense, intrigue, and might be considered a “road picture” when Donat meets up with another attractive lady and is handcuffed to her (you’ll have to see why) while they travel across the English countryside. This is also an early use of what Hitchcock called a “McGuffin”, which is something that everyone in the picture is interested in (in this case, what exactly the “39 Steps” represent), but has no real meaning to the audience (a fine example would be the glowing, golden contents of the briefcase in Tarentino’s film “Pulp Fiction”).

Another great Hitchcock film from that era is “The Lady Vanishes”. Despite an obviously low budget, Hitch manages to generate some real suspense on a train when a kind old lady disappears and no one (other than the lead actress of course) remembers her being aboard. The plot has been copied in numerous films (a recent example, Jodie Foster’s “Flightplan”) but there is something about the pacing, acting, and humor of this film that may stand as Hitch’s finest from this period. It says something when two minor characters, arguing friends “Charters” & “Caldicott” became so popular that they repeated their roles in two subsequent non-Hitchcock films and BBC radio serials.

By 1939, Hitchcock had already made a powerful impact on British cinema and had drawn the attention of Hollywood studios. It was Hitch’s interest in making the film “Rebecca” that finally brought him to America where he began the second stint of his fabulous career.

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