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Hitchcock at 100:
The Early Films

by Gregory Avery


In 1929, Hitchcock directed his (and Britain's) first talking picture, Blackmail, about a young woman who stabs a man in self-defense; her boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective, who is assigned to the case, and who conceals evidence of his girlfriend's involvement; and a third party, who knows the truth and wants to be paid. Initially completed as a silent, Hitchcock skillfully worked-in dialogue and sound sequences, including a famous scene where the young woman listens to a neighbor's conversation and eventually can only come to hear the word "knife." A chase near the end of the picture finds the police pursuing a suspect through the Egyptian wing of the British Museum.

Anny Ondra was cast as the girl, only she spoke with a thick German accent. The problem of recording her lines was solved by having another actress stand, out of camera range, and read the character's dialogue, while Ondra pretended to speak it. Early lip-synching!

Also around this time, Hitchcock met Alma Reville, who worked in the capacity of script girl, which, at that time, encompassed duties ranging from on-set continuity to the final editing of the film. They married in late 1926, not long after the release of The Lodger, on which they both had worked, and would remain so for the rest of their lives. Among Hitchcock's many fears -- his fear of the police (one of the reasons he never had a driver's license), of disorder and discomfort, of confrontation -- was his fear of being alone.

The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps (1935) is considered to be the "first" Hitchcock picture (even though he made eighteen before it, including the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, film adaptations of Noel Coward's "Easy Virtue" and the Abbey Theatre's production of "Juno and the Paycock," and a comedic version of "Taming of the Shrew" for "Elstree Calling"). It is certainly the one where everything seems to finally come together, and it must have pleased Hitchcock when he and his wife were feted with a post-premiere party where they were seated at the head of a table which included Michael Balcon, several British film industry heads, and the author of the original novel, John Buchan. The subsequent reviews were also lavishly laudatory. (Hitchcock always had an eye and ear towards the press.)

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat),a Canadian visiting London, awakens one night to find the body of a woman slumped over him, a knife in her back. Earlier, she had confided to him that she was on her way to Scotland, where some secret information of great importance was about to be spirited out of the country. Suspected of the woman's murder, Hannay, with no time to lose, must dash across the Scottish moors, elude the police, and stop the people who are about to steal the secret information. Along the way, he is momentarily impeded by being handcuffed by the authorities to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll); instead, Hannay drags Pamela along with him.

Madeleine Carroll had not been introduced to Robert Donat until their first day on the set, and then, the first thing Hitchcock did was walk up to them and slap a pair of handcuffs on them. Such was the director's sense of humor, and practical joking, on the set.

The 39 Steps adds to the director's existing motifs the character of a suave villain -- who, in the film, has a distinguishing mark which reveals his true identity. It opens and closes with appearances by a stage performer named "Mr. Memory," first seen in a rowdy music hall, last seen in a benefit performance at the London Palladium. And the enforced, close situation between Hannay and Pamela allows the story to turn into a burlesque of marriage. "Of all the women on this island," Hannay uncharitably tells Pamela at one point, "I have to be chained to you!" Later, staying at an inn for the night, they fall asleep on a bed, fully clothed, chatting, while Hannay idly saws away at their handcuffs with a file.

It is the interplay that occurs between the characters, and the situations that arise during it, once the story is set in motion, that interests Hitchcock. We are never told who the villains represent, or exactly what sort of secret they're all after (something to do with a silent airplane engine). Compared to what's going on in the rest of the picture, and the fact that it does not impede our enjoyment of it, those facts seem almost superfluous.

The secret information in 39 Steps is the MacGuffin for this particular film. Hitchcock spoke about the MacGuffin often and at length, but it was the writer Angus McPhaill, who would later work on the adaptation of Spellbound, who came up with the term and the anecdote from which it sprang:

Two men are traveling in a railway compartment, going from Scotland to London, when one man points to an oddly-shaped parcel in the overhead baggage rack.

"What have you there?" he asks.

"Oh, that's a MacGuffin," replies the second man.

"What's a MacGuffin?"

"It's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands."

"But there aren't any lions in the Scottish Highlands!" exclaims the first man.

"Well, then, I guess that's no MacGuffin!" replies the second.

"A MacGuffin is something that the characters worry about but that the audience does not," Hitchcock told Peter Bogdanovich, and it's as precise an explanation of it as I have ever run across. It can be as specific as the money which Marion Crane takes from her employer's office in Psycho, or the crimes the lead characters in Suspicion or Shadow of a Doubt are suspected of committing, or as unspecific as the espionage secrets that send the characters in 39 Steps or North by Northwest on and off trains, through auction rooms, farmhouses or the United Nations lounge, or across the Scottish moors or the face of Mount Rushmore.

Hitchcock was also very particular about the fact that he made films of "suspense," not "surprise." He used another analogy to illustrate this point. Two men are seen sitting in a room, talking, for two minutes. Then, a bomb hidden in the room goes off. BOOM. The audience is shocked. Momentarily. But then it passes. Restage the scene so that the audience is made aware that a bomb is hidden in the room and set to go off in two minutes, and then have the two men come in and, unawares, have their conversation. The audience goes wild while the two men on-screen sit there doing nothing. Why don't they get outta there? Don't they know a bomb is going to go off!

This was part of what Hitchcock referred to as giving the audience "information" (or, "the audience needs to know all the facts"), telling them what was going on in order to get them more emotionally involved in the action. Hitchcock was careful in how he used his screen time. In the 1954 Rear Window, the first two-and-a-half minutes of the movie told us everything we needed to know, before the story got started, about the setting, the time, the main character, and what had happened just prior to the story's start. In the 1998 remake, half an hour was expended doing the same thing. It's what Hitchcock would have regarded as "wasted time" that could have been better spent doing something else, like creating suspense for the audience.

Young and InnocentDuring the Thirties, while the British film industry was increasingly beginning to fall into disarray (particularly on the matter of distribution of profits from successful motion pictures), Hitchcock enjoyed a range of control over his work that was unlike any other director's at the time. His Thirties films contain some of the cheekiest and most enjoyable bits of work he, and his collaborators, ever conceived, stuff that would have been impossible under Hollywood's Production Code. In Young and Innocent (1937), two policemen engaged in a manhunt are stranded on a country road and inveigh upon a man driving a horse-drawn cart for a lift. The man obliges, only he's taking some livestock to market, and the two bobbies have to awkwardly share the back of the wagon with a load of live pigs. In Secret Agent (1936), John Gielgud and Peter Lorre, playing two British agents, enter a church in an idyllic Swiss village, where they are to meet someone. Gielgud asks Lorre, "Do you know any prayers?" Lorre replies, "Do not insult me, please!" And there's an indelible exchange in Number Seventeen (1932), Hitchcock's "old dark house" thriller, between John Stuart, playing a stranger who turns out to be a detective, and a merchant marine sailor played by the long-nosed Cockney comedian Leon M. Lion. Stuart: "You've never seen a pair of handcuffs before?" Lion: "No, sir. N'er worn 'em. I was brought-up Baptist."

Hitchcock only made one "whodunit" in his career, the 1930 film Murder!, to which he was probably drawn because of its setup, where a juror (Herbert Marshall), fearing that he helped convict an innocent person, goes about to see if he can find out who the real culprit was. Hitchcock claimed he did not think much of this type of mystery, where you had to guess who the murderer was, because you had to spend two-thirds of the movie fiddling around in doing so. There is also an incident connected with his 1937 film Sabotage (which was based on the Joseph Conrad novel "The Secret Agent;" "Secret Agent" was based on the Somerset Maugham novel "Ashenden"). In it, a young boy with a puppy boards a double-decker bus carrying a box, unaware that the box contains a bomb. We see him ride the bus into Piccadilly Circus, where the bomb explodes, obliterating the bus and all its passengers. Even though the story was concerned with anarchists, C.A. Lejeune, the talented writer and, later, film critic for the London "Observer," took Hitchcock to task for including a scene in his film which was overly cruel. Hitchcock felt so badly about Lejeune's reaction that he never repeated the same mistake and repudiated the scene in "Sabotage" for the rest of his life.

By the end of the 1930s, Hitchcock was receiving the attention of Hollywood, particularly David O. Selznick, who first contacted Hitchcock about a possible film on the sinking of the HMS Titanic. Selznick was also pursuing the film rights to Daphne du Maurier's novel "Rebecca," material which Hitchcock was a little more interested in directing. With the tenuous situation in Europe, and the fact that he and Alma now had a daughter, Patricia, to tend for, the Hitchcocks made the move to the U.S. in early 1939.

Before that, he kept a promise to expatriate producer Erich Pommer (who had previously worked with Fritz Lang) and Charles Laughton, who leaned over to Hitchcock during an industry dinner and asked, "How would you like to do a film with us?" It was an adaptation of another du Maurier novel, "Jamaica Inn:" Laughton played an 18th century aristocrat who was also the secret head of a band of brigands who scuttled ships in order to steal their cargo and murder their crews. It was a fairly far-out project to leave Britain on: along with Laughton, weirdly made-up, looking like an effete John Bull caricature, Robert Newton was cast as an 18th century secret agent, and the love interest was played by Maureen O'Hara, in her film debut. While the film was capably handled, one still gets the impression, while watching it, that Hitchcock wanted to be away from it all as quickly as possible.

RebeccaRebecca turned out to be a success, and it won Selznick his second consecutive Academy Award for Best Picture. Selznick's career in the Forties was both made and cursed by four words: Gone With the Wind. A stupendous gamble which could have turned into a stupendous cataclysm, it did just the opposite, becoming (until 1977-78) the all-time biggest moneymaking picture in history (a title it regained when its figures were adjusted to reflect inflation in the 1980s), and it won Selznick his first Academy Award for Best Picture. During much of the Forties, Selznick turned his time and energies towards two sprawling projects, a wartime homefront drama, Since You Went Away, for which he ended up re-writing most of the screenplay himself, and a huge Western, Duel in the Sun, which almost did Selznick and its on-screen (and Selznick's off-screen) co-star, Jennifer Jones, in for good.

Although he was under-contract to the producer, Hitchcock made two other pictures with Selznick after Rebecca, the psychological drama Spellbound, which has dated badly, and The Paradine Case, which Hitchcock seems to have made mostly for one moment in the film, when the hero, a London barrister (Gregory Peck), realizing that he has botched his case, leaves the court and, for the first and only time in the film, we see the Old Bailey courtroom, where the case was being heard, in its entirety.

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