I would be remiss if I did not review a Hitchcock movie or two – so I will give you reviews of three Hitchcock movies.  Not “North by Northwest” (1959) or “Vertigo”(1958) or Rear Window (1954) or Psycho (1960), as all of these are classics which have far more reviews written and are more readily available to rent.  Prior to his most famous works of the late 1950s, Hitchcock was a prolific director in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.  I am reviewing three of Hitchcock’s early movies –  ones that clearly made him famous in his home country of England.

I rented a collection of Hitchcock movies called “Alfred Hitchcock:  The Legend Begins,” which is a set of four DVDs containing 20 of his early works, with such intriguing titles as “Champagne” (1928 – silent movie –if you like watching the idle rich drink and smoke all day, hang out on cruise ships and change clothes often, you will like this movie), “Blackmail,”(1929), “Juno and the Paycock,” (1930) and “The Lady Vanishes,” (1938).  I will be reviewing the following three movies from this collection:

1.   “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934)

This movie struck my interest, mostly because it featured Peter Lorre, who I find incredibly interesting to watch.   He’s not the main character, but a curious key character.

A family (husband, wife, daughter and dog) vacations in Switzerland, and they are having lavish and lovely upper-middle class time.  Skiing is involved and so are fancy dances replete with ball gowns and tuxes.  A family friend is shot at such a dance, and as he dies he tells the vacationing wife to get to the British consulate after revealing some other details.  There’s kidnapping, extortion and suspense.

Lorre is young, giggly, has a bleached streak in his hair and is as weird as ever.

Two interesting features of this movie deal with women:  Hitchcock allows one to be shot and killed (which must have been risqué for the time) and he allows another to take a crucial action that makes all the difference in the movie (I can’t describe the action or this will be a spoiler).  I wouldn’t say that Hitchcock is a feminist, but I will say that he probably liked to shock people with the unexpected, and he used women in his films to this end.

This movie is black and white, and will only take up 76 minutes of your time.  It’s a good primer for movie buffs.  We truly have come a long way  in movie production, but I can tell you, from  the dialogue, story, acting and camera work of this movie, that Hitchcock well earned his title as a preeminent director.  Hitchcock captures Swiss/Italian Alps and scenes of city night life.  A key scene toward the end takes places at the Royal Albert Hall.  Hitchcock was gifted, even when working with a more limited palette.

Hitchcock himself remade this movie in 1956 starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day and set in Morocco instead of Switzerland and with a son instead of a daughter.  I will definitely be renting that, too. Stay tuned.

The 1934 version is highly recommended.

2.   “39 Steps” (1935)

The movie starts with some kind of stage show, vaudevillian, a Know-It-All called Mr. Memory who takes a myriad of questions from the audience in the days before “Jeopardy” and Wikipedia.    This guy’s a walking encyclopedia, and people pay him to answer their questions.  “How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?” asks main character, Hannay (played by Robert Donat, who has an Errol Flynn-like quality), and the Mr. Memory answers correctly.

Then, however, a fight ensues in the hall.  Shots are heard.  The crowd takes off.

A woman asks Hanny if she can go home with him – very forward for 1935.  She has a German accent and calls herself “Schmidt.” (Smith)  Like a typical male, he lets her go home with him without asking too many questions.  He’s a Canadian visiting from Montreal, and she goes to his place and takes a drink.  She admits that she was the one who fired the shot at the show, and that mysterious men were trying to kill her.  She tells him a secret – have you ever heard of the 39 steps? (the action of telling a secret is a theme in Hitchcock movies)  She warns him of a man with a deformed little finger.  She tells him of her plans to go to Scotland, and leaves him with a map.  Apparently she’s some kind of spy.

Then she dies in a very staged death scene.  But now Hannay’s the target of these mysterious men, and he’s on the run.  He gets to Scotland, hooks up with a farming couple, then moves on.  Hannay connects with a woman named Pamela at several important times in the movie.  There is also a key scene at the London Palladium.

The cars are ancient, and it takes them 2 hours to go 40 miles.

The movie is black and white and only 83 minutes.  It’s a harmless watch, and I do like Robert Donat.  Not as good as “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” but still fine in its own right.

3.   “Sabotage” (1936)

This movie, which is based on the novel, “The Secret Agent” by Joseph Conrad, opens to a page in the dictionary – the word sabotage and its meaning, then jumps in time to reveal a true case of sabotage.   Legendary Sylvia Sydney was a surprise to me in this movie.  She has a main role, playing a woman named Mrs. Verloc – she is an American in England, and the wife of a mysterious man, who appears to be up to no good.  Mr Verloc has cold and dark eyes, bushy eyebrows, a suspect accent, and he wears a black hat.   He meets with other men who wear black hats and have equally suspect accents.  Verloc may have some darkness in him, but he’s not as dark as others he’s meeting with at an aquarium and in a bird shop.  It’s clear, though, that Hitchcock likes his villains to exhibit decidedly Eastern European accents (see Peter Lorre).

Together, Mr. and Mrs. Verloc own a cinema, The Bijou, and live with her younger brother, Stevie.   There’s also a greengrocer (as was Hitchcock’s father) named Ted who runs a store by their cinema and plays a chief part in the movie.   Ted gets close too Mrs. Verloc, not in a romantic way at first, but in a very professional way, for reasons that become apparent later.

Again, a woman does something unexpected for 1936 – scandalous, daring.

There’s a bombing on a bus and a murder.  All is not well in London.  There’s also an early cartoon sequence by Walt Disney.  The ending is a bit unsatisfying, but not harmful to the quality of the movie.  Black and white movie; 76 minutes.  I can recommend.

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