Originally published August 13, 2016.
If there’s a shorthand term in film journalism and conversation more useful than “Hitchcockian” I am yet to hear it. While terms like “Lynchian” are often misused, “Hitchcockian” is usually appropriate as a point of comparison because, well, whatever is being described, he probably did do it first. As far as I’m concerned there is no single director more influential to cinema, whose intellectual engagement with how an audience thinks and feels was more beneficial to the medium. Because of this, films like Psycho, Rear Window, The Birds and Vertigo have become essential viewing for the aspiring film buff, and rightly so. But Hitchcock didn’t make his name just by these game-changing classics – there are another 50 films to his name after all.
In celebration of the director’s birthday today, I’m suggesting five less well-known Hitchcock films that you absolutely must see.
Hitchcock’s penultimate film, before his death in 1980, was also the first film he had made in Britain in over 20 years. Despite the fact at this point he had spent more of his career living in Hollywood, his return showed no less understanding of London life and culture. The film is about “The Necktie Murderer”, who rapes then strangles women to death with his tie, and the innocent man who is blamed for his crimes. Fairly early in the film the real killer is revealed to us, before various circumstantial evidence implicates Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). The real culprit, played by Barry Foster, is one of the best villains in Hitchcock’s filmography. With his misogyny barely hidden under a veil of gentility, he is a compelling and unfortunately still familiar personality to modern audiences. The role was originally offered to Michael Caine, who refused to be associated with such a disgusting character.
The film itself is far more explicit than usual for Hitchcock (who was as much a master of innuendo as he was the master of suspense), and it’s the first of his films to have any nudity. This era gave him range for casual nudity and sex references that feel shocking even for the 70s, and he’s making the most of it. When Giallo filmmakers such as Suspiria’s Dario Argento are thought of as heavily influenced by Hitchcock, Frenzy is the closest fit to trace the influence. One of the most interesting things about the film is that while Blaney is innocent of the killings, he is still a thuggish, mean-spirited alcoholic, who is so full of rage he smashes a glass just from holding it too tight. His lack of heroism mixed with the absurd misfortune bestowed upon him is reminiscent of one of Camus’ protagonists, and the world around him is far nastier than we’re used to from the director. Hitchcock’s directorial talents weren’t waning even in his seventies, as his use of sound and framing expertly hides, hints, and reveals information to the audience. One particular shot, where the camera follows Foster up the stairs into his apartment then slowly reverses down the stairs and back into the streets, is astounding; teasing the viewer before making them feel utterly helpless.
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
On the outskirts of Vermont, a man called Harry is found dead on the hillside. A hunter tries to hide the body, believing he accidentally shot the man, but is interrupted by several other villagers – who approach the body individually, each suspecting that they may have caused his death in some way. While most of Hitchcock’s films have an element of macabre humour, this is one of his few true comedies. It’s full of innuendo that feels incredibly risqué for 1955, and a casual attitude towards death that is darkly funny. When Miss Gravely asks about the body the Captain is dragging by the ankles, according to him “it was nothing more than a pleasantry, so to speak – Like ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’”
The cast all skilfully walk the line between authenticity and farce, particularly Edmund Gwenn and Shirley MacLaine – who is effortlessly charming even though it’s her first role on the big screen. The story, which involves misunderstanding, stupidity, romance, and a body being repeatedly buried and exhumed, is based on the 1949 novel of the same name by Jack Trevor Story, but it has the feel of a Shirley Jackson short story at times. It is both sweetly sincere in its romances, and deeply cynical of well-mannered society. The characters are far more concerned with whether their paintings are sold or their flirtations are successful than they are with the death of another human being. There’s a distrust of the supposed good nature of regular people, who chase romantic comedy clichés with a blissful disregard of morality. It’s also pretty damn funny.
The 39 Steps (1935)
A trope we have come to associate with Hitchcock and his imitators is the plot of the falsely-accused man on-the-run. While he may have already used the idea once before with the silent film The Lodger, it was The 39 Steps that set the template for the narrative, and maybe even perfected it. American Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is mistakenly suspected as the murder of a counter-espionage agent, so goes on the run from London to Scotland in the hopes of discovering what is really going on and thereby clearing his name. There’s a turn in the plot (that I won’t spoil) which you would expect to come at the peak of the third act, but is brought in before the halfway point. It keeps you on your toes, as unaware of where the story will lead as the protagonist is.
Robert Donat is compelling and charismatic as a man caught up in a conspiracy he can barely understand, effortlessly transitioning from exasperated civilian to suave trickster at the drop of a hat. And just when the police chase antics might start to run their course, Madeleine Carroll is introduced as a woman who gets mixed up in the action against her will. The chemistry between Caroll and Donat is captivating, and their dialogue is always witty and often hilarious. The set pieces and pacing are spot on, and the relationship between the two leads builds convincingly without taking dramatic shortcuts. The episodic quality of The 39 Steps might sound like a criticism, but it works in its favour. And if it were a TV serial I would never stop watching.
Neighbourhood cinema owner Karl Verloc is under suspicion by Scotland Yard for possible involvement in an electrical blackout in London. Sergeant Ted Spencer (John Loder) is assigned undercover to investigate him, becoming involved with his wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her young brother. Verloc is deeply involved in a plot to create panic in London and take public attention off the war rumblings in continental Europe. Given the rise of the Nazi party in subsequent years, it’s been assumed that it was meant to be a Nazi plot, but the film never makes explicit the political leanings of the foreign agents organising acts of terror.
Sabotage is overlooked for a number of reasons, namely its confusion with Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur. It doesn’t help that the film is based on the Joseph Conrad novel ‘The Secret Agent’, while the director made an unrelated film called Secret Agent the same year. Despite this, it has one of the purest expressions of Hitchcock’s “Bomb under the table” theory on cinematic suspense. Mrs. Verloc’s young brother unknowingly delivers a bomb that is set to go off, hidden inside a film canister. He is repeatedly stopped and held up by various obstacles ranging from the mundane to the ridiculous – all while we nervously hope he delivers the package before it explodes. The director has stated that he made the mistake of not relieving the tension enough in this specific example, but the response it evokes is one just as powerful.
Loosely based on the real-life murder of 14-year-old Robert Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope is a masterclass in suspense and a remarkable experiment in filmmaking. Two friends kill a former classmate they consider intellectually “inferior,” stuff his body in a chest and throw a dinner party for his friends, family and the housemaster (Jimmy Stewart) who inspired them with discussions of the Nietzschean Übermensch. Brandon (John Dall) enjoys the thrill of their guests coming close to finding out, while his co-conspirator Phillip (Farley Granger) threatens to break under the pressure – their two reactions mirror the conflicting emotions the audience have. The action is confined to a single set, with walls being moved out of the way by prop men to allow free movement for the camera – the film resembling one uninterrupted take. The film would have almost no visible editing if it wasn’t for the fact that the reels needed to be changed every twenty minutes.
While the production of the film is interesting, what makes the film special is how Hitchcock explores the psychology behind the mankind’s tendency to dehumanise fellow members of the species. The third main player in this cerebral debate is James Stewart, playing against type as a collected, smug intellectual – one who is eventually forced to face the harsh reality of his hypothetical musings when his words are given physical form. Hitchcock also manages to endow the two killers with enough pathos that their monstrous crime doesn’t get in the way of our anxiety over whether they will get caught. As with a number of his films, Rope is subtly progressive too. While there was no way he could get explicit references past the censorship board, there are definite hints that Phillip and Brandon are gay, just as the real-life killers they were based upon were. Rope was even banned in certain towns for this reason. The fact that this subtext is there, without leaning on caricature or correcting them with moral comeuppance, is impressive to say the least. Rope may be smaller in scope than some of its siblings, but it’s a masterpiece nonetheless.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures