Monday, February 21, 2011

Two More by Hitchcock

Over the weekend I saw two more early Hitchcock films...

On Saturday it was the 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, which is the only film that Hitch remade on his own. In some ways I prefer the original, as it lacks the presence of Doris Day, who I find grating, but the remake did flesh out the plot a bit more at the beginning.

Opening in snowy St. Moritz, we're shown the vacationing Lawrences, Bob (Leslie Banks), Jill (Edna Best), and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), and family friend Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). Jill is a crack shot, which comes into play later. One evening, Jill and Louis are dancing when he's shot through the window. Dying, he manages to gasp out a message to Jill, and while Bob is finding a message hidden in the handle of Louis' shaving brush, Betty is kidnapped and the Lawrences are sternly informed to stay quiet or she will die.

Returning to London, they're contacted by a government official...the guy's from the Foreign Office, and Louis was One Of Our Men (I just LOOOOVVVVE these old days of gentlemen spies working for the Foreign Office...). While the Lawrences are at first reluctant to get involved, he impresses on them that the scheme is afoot to assassinate a foreign leader, and it could very well lead to another war.

Bill eventually sets off on his own with a friend, finding a clue at a dentist's office, and finally spotting gang leader Abbott (Peter Lorre, in his English-language film debut), and eventually following them to a crackpot church of sun worshipers.

Both films have the famous Albert Hall scene, with the same music (the "Storm Clouds Cantata" from the film's composer Arthur Benjamin, which Bernard Herrmann lovingly recycled for the remake). However, the aftermath is different; in this version, there's a savage police siege and shoot-out at the villain's church lair. This scene was inspired by the 1911 "Siege of Sidney Street" that was a shootout between police and criminals on the streets of London (with all sorts of political undertones). And Jill's expertise with firearms comes in very handy...a parallel with the remake, because in both films it's the wife's talents that save the child's life. (The remake makes more of a point that the wife's talents and career have been subsumed by her marriage and not allowed to come into play, something not really played up by the original.)

It was a lot of fun; I enjoyed it, especially the St. Moritz scenes (I'm a sucker for snowy alpine scenery). This was from a time when Hitch's recognizable style was truly beginning to come together.

Sunday was NUMBER 17, from 1932. It's technically cruder than MAN, by leaps and bounds, and has undeniable story problems, but there's quite a bit about it that I like. It opens with a man standing outside a vacant house (the "number 17" of the title) and seeing a light moving, and going in to investigate. The light is from a sailor who's seeking a place to crash for the night, but the presence of a seeming corpse on the top landing creates tension between them. More people show up...the daughter of a policeman who had snuck into the house earlier, and a trio of suspicious characters who seem to be having some sort of rendezvous there. It seems there was a daring robbery of a famous necklace, and it's hidden somewhere in the house. The gang plans to recover the necklace and hop a nearby train to start over on the Continent (implicitly, Germany, which must have seemed unpatriotic at the time).

The scenes in the house are fabulous; Hitch was having fun with the play of light and shadow, and I just loved that set. It made me want to skulk about with a candle, in a vast empty house, on a bleak windy day. But the characters are underdeveloped; we never know exactly who or what these people are. Were they ALL involved in the theft of the necklace? Were only a few of them? Why is the hero so determined to save the life of the deaf/mute woman who isn't really deaf/mute?

In the second half, it suddenly shifts tone and becomes a frenzied chase thriller. The criminals hop on a train, which races across the countryside and eventually is out of control after the villains knock out the engineer (why would they do that?). Amusingly, the hero hijacks a tour bus and races after them (the reactions of the passengers is beyond precious). It all ends in a big conflagration that's a bit out of synch with the beginning of the movie, but oh well.

A big problem is the speeded-up nature of the fight scenes and the train chase; it looks clunky and dated. The atmosphere of the early scenes in the old house are great, though, and I found myself relishing them immensely.

Interestingly, it's based on a play. And I found that it's a film Hitchcock didn't want to make and later in life actively hated. His reluctance shines through, but his skill with some parts is undeniable. Maybe that's why it's so technically crude?

It's fairly obscure Hitchcock, not shown often. Catch it if you can and see what you think.

No comments: