Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins, disc 2

Rich and Strange, 1931, b&w. Henry Kendall, Joan Barry, Percy Marmont, Betty Amann, Elsie Randolph. 1:32 [1:23].

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I do know that without Hitchcock’s name, I’d write it off as a pointless, sketchy picture with mostly unlikable characters and a plot that makes little sense. It involves a married middle-class couple (with a blowhard husband) of little means who suddenly acquire an inheritance. They go on a cruise, in which he’s terribly seasick for many days and she befriends a dashing Commodore (Marmont). When he gets better, he’s befriended by (and takes a liking to) a supposed princess. (There’s an absurd “old maid” also [Randolph], interfering with everybody.) The princess is a gold-digger and after digging all his gold (there wasn’t that much), departs. The woman should leave with the dashing man who clearly loves her and will take care of her, but she’s devoted to her unfaithful, boorish husband. Then, on their return voyage (on a lesser vessel), there’s some sort of accident, they’re trapped in their cabin and abandoned, but they get out and are picked up by a Chinese junk. And wind up back at home.

Hitchcock makes heavy use of title cards as transitions. I found them reminiscent of silents but a poor substitute for some flow, in a movie that feels like a set of isolated incidents. Some IMDB reviewers call this a dark comedy, but I found nothing particularly amusing, unless it’s the annoying overplayed “old maid.” All in all, this was more irritating than enjoyable, but Hitchcock completists might enjoy it. At best $0.75.

The Thirty-Nine Steps (aka The 39 Steps), 1935, b&w. Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, Wylie Watson. 1:26 [1:23].

Now this is more like it. A proper thriller that plays fair with the viewer and is good, solid, well-directed entertainment. I won’t give you the whole plot just in case you haven’t seen this one, but it involves a female spy-for-hire, a mysterious alien protagonist (he’s Canadian!), espionage within Britain by foreign agents, police misunderstandings (quite understandable ones), feats of prodigious memory, and a lot of Scotland. You get murder (but no gore), shooting, trains and bridges, political humor, music halls…and charming innkeepers.

I could probably poke tiny holes in the plot, but no more so than any good thriller. The acting’s fine—low-key, which suits the plot. The print’s not perfect, but pretty good, and this one’s a classic–an easy $2.

Secret Agent, 1936, b&w. John Gielgud, Peter Lorre, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Young. 1:26.

In this delightful romantic comedy… OK, it’s an espionage thriller—although there is some comedy and some romance. Set in World War I, it involves a hush-hush British spy organization (but with “R” rather than “M” as the head), a returning soldier who’s conveniently “died” in the press as he’s being recruited to do a little counterespionage, a beautiful woman posing as his wife…and Peter Lorre being Peter Lorre, as over the top as you’d expect.

Well directed, lots of interesting camerawork and segues, well acted, suspenseful. The final third is action-packed, with much of it on a train (always great for thrillers). The climactic point seemed a bit contrived, but only a bit. Another classic, and another easy $2.

Champagne, 1928, b&w, silent (unrelated music). Betty Balfour, Gordon Harker, Jean Bradin, Ferdinand von Alten. 1:26 [1:25].

Another very early silent (this time with wholly unrelated classical music, some of it Elgar). The madcap daughter of a wealthy New Yorker flies off in his plane to meet up with her boyfriend (the father does not approve, thinking him a golddigger) who’s on a cruise to France. She gets over to the ship, apparently abandoning the plane in the process. They argue (he feels that she’s calling all the shots), he’s seasick a lot (Hitchcock seems to love mal de mer), she meets a sinister man…

Next, we’re in Paris, where she’s entertaining a bunch of young flapper-types, changing gowns every two minutes, generally living it up. Her father shows up and tells her he lost all his money; they’re penniless. Let’s see…she goes to sell jewels and has the case full of them (which she’s dangling like any other purse) snatched. The young man shows up, with a good job, and offers to take care of her and her father but she refuses. She’s sharing a dismal little apartment with her father. The sinister man shows up from time to time—especially in the club where she gets a job as a hostess.

It all winds up with a romantic-comedy ending (the father was just teaching her a lesson, the young man’s really OK, the sinister man…well, I won’t reveal that one). All in all, I found it OK as a bit of fluff. Not much more than fluff, though. There’s a problem shared with other Hitchcock silents: If you don’t lip read, you’re missing a lot; there are relatively few intertitles. Let’s say $1.00.

Blackmail, 1929, b&w. Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Richard. 1:24.

At first, I wondered whether this was a mislabeled silent: There’s no real dialog for the first eight minutes, although lots of conversations take place for lipreaders in the crowd. I guess that’s a mannerism, as is the frequent use of old ahooga car horns in the music track. (Checking IMDB, this was apparently his first talkie, which may explain it.) The plot: Scotland Yard detective’s girlfriend is a little bored with him, goes walking with an artist, winds up in artist’s flat, stabs (and kills) artist when he misreads her intentions. She walks around in a seeming daze for some time—actually, she seemed to be in a daze throughout the picture, or maybe she’s just a very subtle actress.

Scotland Yard investigates the murder but come up with nearly nothing—and her boyfriend is one of those investigating. He removes a glove from the scene that he thinks (correctly) belongs to her. Next thing we know, a stranger who was nearby the murder scene is walking in to the shop where she works (and lives?), aiming to blackmail them based on having the other glove. But the stranger’s an ex-con, and…well, he flees, he dies in the chase, she wants to confess but there’s nothing to confess to, and the movie ends. Sorry if these are plot spoilers, but it isn’t much of a plot.

It also isn’t, to my mind, much of a thriller, despite some Hitchcockian visual devices. The actors seemed remarkably flat and uninteresting, the blackmail peril never really developed, she was—in fact—acting in self-defense and… I guess you have to be a Hitchcock fan. (Reading the first few of many enthusiastic IMDB reviews, it does seem clear that I’m insufficiently fond of early Hitchcock.) I’ll give it $1.25.

A note about copyright claims

It has been suggested that this set may not be legitimate, as some early Hitchcock films entered the public domain in the U.S. and later, in a remarkable case of repressive international law, were returned to copyright retroactively. All I know is this: Mill Creek Entertainment, which has been in business for some years and has a physical address and set of officers listed on its website, continues to produce and feature this set; Amazon and other vendors continue to sell it.

One Response to “Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins, disc 2”

  1. John Dupuis says:

    Odd bit of trivia: John Buchan, who wrote the novel The 39 Steps, was Governor General of Canada from 1935-1940.