Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most well known directors of all time bringing murder and mystery to a new light. His films, starting in 1925 with “The Pleasure Garden” and ending in 1976 with the film “Family Plot”, set a precedent for all other directors in the film industry. Many story lines and techniques within the cinematography of Hitchcock are common standards for films of today.
However, Hitchcock did not start out as a brilliant director, but instead started from the very bottom of the business. As a young man Hitchcock was raised and lived in England with his parents. When a new Paramount studio opened he rushed to get a job there having had interest in film making for quite a bit of time. He was employed at Paramount as a “title designer” for silent films meaning he wrote out the lines that are displayed after each shot in the film. From that job he worked his way up through the business to assistant director and directed a small film that was never finished or released. Hitchcock’s directorial debut took place in 1925 with the release of the film “The Pleasure Garden”. His breakthrough film came just a year later with “The Lodger”, a film that came to be an ideal example of a classic Hitchcock plot. The general idea of the plot is an innocent man is accused of a crime he did not commit and through a web of mystery, danger, action, and of course love he must find the true criminal. This plot came to be used in many of Hitchcock’s films throughout his career both silent and “talkie”. It was not long before Hitchcock came to be known as the “Master of Suspense”. He was said to have “not only mastered the art of making films but he also mastered the task of taming his own raging imagination”.
The first Alfred Hitchcock film I am going to address is his and England’s first “talkie” which is the dramatization “Blackmail”. This film, released in 1929, was originally shot as a silent and some people say it should have remained as a silent. Nonetheless, it was a tremendous breakthrough for both Hitchcock and the British film industry for their first movie with sound. However, there were a few problems with this transition to sound.
Anna Ondra who played the main female character Alice had a very thick Eastern European accent that came to be impossible to decipher on the film. This had never been a problem for her prior to “Blackmail” because she had only starred in silent films. This was a topic we addressed in class and we learned that a lot of European actors/actresses were out of work with the invention of sound movies because of thick accents. However, in “Blackmail” there was a solution…Ondra’s voice was dubbed over by an English actress named Joan Barry. By doing this voice-over the film could remain a “talkie” and they would not have to re-film. The film also was still using the synchronized sound so it was not as perfect as later techniques of putting sound to film.
The film is about a young woman, Alice, who makes a bad character judgement about a stranger she meets. She is invited to the studio of a sketchy looking artist who would like her to pose for him, or so she thinks that is his intention. His true intention, however, is to sleep with her. Ultimately she has to fight off his unwanted attention and goes as far as killing him, in true Hitchcock fashion, with a knife. This murder lands her in a spiral of intrigue as she is caught between her boyfriend who is an investigating detective and a person who is blackmailing her. Alice wants to turn herself in, but if she did that she’d have to explain why she had put herself in such a position.
Within this film is the typical Hitchcock story that the character wants to tell the police what has happened but they just can not do it. They know they’d never be believed so they must set out to defend themselves. This occurs in “The 39 Steps”, a film that will be focused on following this film, as well. Hitchcock loves returning to themes over and over again, but he is the master of never making the same movie twice. Each movie has a certain specific characteristic that sets it apart from the rest.
In “Blackmail” it is the use of both sounds and visuals. Hitchcock managed to not take away from the visuals when incorporating sound into his films. The sound does not overwhelm the film so the viewer is still able to pay attention to the finite detail. A viewer does not miss the reoccurring image of hands reaching at Alice. The same with the glove being forgotten in the artist’s studio, the place the murder took place. The sound in the movie improved upon what was already there.
The next film I am going to discuss is the 1935 film “The 39 Steps”, or otherwise titled “The Thirty-nine Steps”, named and fashioned after the novel written by John Buchan. This film is one of the most popular early works of Hitchcock, and it was from this movie that Hitchcock became “Hitchcock”, not just a director but a name. It emanated his distinct and unique style of directing and gave him a very big name in the industry and the audience. This film also displayed his talent in being able to make a novel’s story line work in a movie with just a few adjustments. He was able to compress the novel to a length that would interest the audience and improve upon it as well. The length was important to Hitchcock for he once was quoted as saying, “The length of the film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, a standard all directors should work by in my opinion.
“The 39 Steps” is the ultimate murder mystery with a nice twist of espionage. The main male character is a man named Richard Hannay who is new to London. After a scuffle breaks out at the theater he is approached by a woman, Annabella, who asks if she may go home with him. He allows her to and soon finds out that she is hiding from two men that are after her. The romance has no time to grow since she is killed in the middle of the night, but not before she tells him of the 39 steps. Hannay feels it is his mission to complete what Annabella asked of him and also to prove he did not kill her. From then on he is involved in chases, confrontations, and romantic interludes.
The are just a few changes in the story line that Hitchcock knew would work better on screen. In the novel the houseguest was not a woman but a man, and he did not stay half a night but a couple of days. There was no Mr. Memory in the novel, but instead a spy with a photographic memory. The Professor in the novel is distinctive because of his hooded eyes instead of a missing finger. The first two mentioned alterations were made for the interests of the audience. The last was because Hitchcock thought a missing finger would be more dramatic to film than someone with half shut eyes that they would have to close in on to emphasize.
The technical aspects of the film are beautifully done. The editing was very smooth with quick transitions from one scene to the next which was very different than the film “Blackmail”. The latter film was not as tight in editing which can take away from the film. Also the sound in “Blackmail” was not as clear as the sound in this film. You can truly tell the difference that six years can make in the improvement of quality. Not to say that the sound in “Blackmail” was bad, for it was not. It was impressive for being the first “talkie” of England. Specifically, the sound when the door would open and you could hear all the sounds of the city not just what was going on in the shop. This is similar to the scenes in the theater of “The 39 Steps” when you can hear the crowd as well as the man on stage and the band’s music.
The lighting in “The 39 Steps” is also a technique I’d like to touch upon. One of the first scenes is at the theater where a fight breaks out. The shot shifts from the view from the floor to the view from the stage. In the view from the stage I liked how the crowd closest to the camera was shadowed while the men that were fighting in the distance were lighted. It gave an overlook of the whole audience, but also brought attention to the action. This spotlight effect was also used a few minutes later in the film when Annabella has pointed out the spies to Richard. He looks out the window and down on the corner of the street are two men under a sort of spotlight created by the streetlamp. Another creative use of lighting in this film is when Richard is in Scotland and he is being chased through the countryside. At one point he pauses at the top of a hill that is completely dark, but the mountain behind him is illuminated so that you can see a dark silhouette of his form. The chase seems to pause for just a moment so that the audience may take that in. The last example is in the last scene when Richard and Pamela are on stage and there is light on them while the crowd is faded out a bit. The only disadvantage to the use of lighting was there were some scenes that were so dark you could barely make out the characters that were speaking. I noticed this is in both the country scenes and the city scenes.
Hitchcock also tends to use irony quite often which some viewers might not notice if not analyzing one of his films. One of the first scenes in “The 39 Steps” is Annabella asking Richard if she may go home with him because she feels that she owes him an explanation for having fired shots at the theater. He says, “Don’t bother. I’m nobody”. At first I thought this to be tied in with the opening of the film when the first three shots never show him above the neck and then he is assumed to be lost in the crowd. I came to realize the irony in that statement as the movie progressed, though. He comes to pose as a milkman, a motor mechanic, a marcher in a parade, and a political speaker. I wouldn’t say that Richard was nobody, but rather that he could be anybody. Irony is also used in “Blackmail” when Alice is sitting at the kitchen table. The older woman is talking unintelligibly but the only word that the girl can hear is “knife” over and over again. A knife happens to be what she used to kill the attempted rapist. That is a more blatant use of irony.
While “Blackmail” had much impact on the fashion of movies and the transition to “talkies”, the film “The 39 Steps” had a large historical impact on movies. After this movie came out almost every chase and spy thriller have copied its style. This film set a precedent for similar types of movies and directors realized it attracted an audience. The film gets the viewer so involved in the suspense, action, and romance they almost forget about the actual 39 Steps. Better said:
Such is the zest of the Hitchcock plot that the
original point of the title was totally forgotten,
and half a line had to be added at the end by
way of explanation.
The last movie I am going to mention is the 1939 film, “The Lady Vanishes”. This film is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s last films made in Britain before he immigrated over to America to pursue his directing career. It is a warm film that still holds mystery and suspense. The film takes place on a train bound for England travelling across central Europe. All the main characters have been introduced from the night before when they were snowed into an inn in an unnamed location