Exploring Hitchcock Part 2: The Early Masterpieces and his (not so) Grand Finale

This is the second in a series of posts on the filmmaking of Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): one of the greatest directors of all time. These posts are authored by Robin Stevens, JJ McDermott and Alan Matthews, and the idea is for each part to take a selection of Hitchcock’s films and analyze them in detail. Hopefully they will present somewhat of a new insight into his films as well as a look at the man himself and the times in which he lived and worked in. Here, JJ follows up Robin’s previous post on Rebecca (1940), Rear Window (1954) and The Birds (1963) with a look at two different periods in Hitchcock’s career: his movement into talkie features in Britain in the 1930s with a focus on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and Secret Agent (1936), and his final two films released in the 1970s – Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). These two periods of the genius’s career showcase a remarkable evolution in his work over time but they too provide an indication of his unwavering and persistent brilliance in film artistry, be it in areas of technical wizardry or in areas of detailed story-plotting.


As the biography goes, or as he himself describes, Hitchcock broke into the film industry as an art director in the early 1920s. Apparently he gained recognition when he spoke up about bad direction on a film set he was working on. The phrase ‘well, if you think you can do better…’ was probably the prompt of the man’s unrivaled career in filmmaking. He moved up the ranks fast in the London studios of the 1920s from screenwriter to assistant director to director. Taking direct influence and inspiration from the German expressionist filmmakers of the time, he embarked upon a semi-successful stint at directing silent films before breaking through with The Lodger in 1927, a film about a serial killer in London. It captured the imagination of the public throughout the UK and Ireland and promoted an exciting new chapter in the history of cinema. His reputation expanded and he transitioned to the ‘talkie’ era seamlessly, purportedly being the first director to release a sound film in Britain with Blackmail in 1929. The concept of a ‘Hitchcockian’ technique was starting to take effect and by the end of the 1930s, he would have carried it across the water to Hollywood to set up his successful journey into super-stardom. But before all that, he made a few masterpieces in Britain on much lower budgets and this is where I will begin…


The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
(Gaumont-British Picture Corporation)
Featuring Leslie Banks, Edna Best and Peter Lorre

The pitch of a story for Hitchcock was always the most important thing. It was the way in which he played with that pitch that made him stand out. In The Man Who Know Too Much, the pitch was wonderfully intricate: a privileged British family go skiing in Switzerland, befriend a stranger, the stranger is killed by some bad people and then the family is suspected of being connected with the stranger so their daughter is kidnapped by the bad people. Let’s just say that what ensues is something very different to Taken – less outrageous and there is no Liam Neeson to save the day. Notwithstanding, the heft of the stakes at play here are pretty high and leads to a very gripping conclusion, something very notable for a 1934 film. As many would know, Hitchcock had a crafty way of allowing the audience to get slightly comfortable with a very distressing scenario (a child being held against her will). He formats proceedings with wit and humour and never allows the potential seriousness of the situation to get in the way of an entertaining, thrill-ride mystery puzzle. Every now and again, we are reminded of the desperate situation that the innocent family finds themselves in but there are only vignettes of focus on this. A series of other characters are introduced to distract us and there are many scenes that are straight-up entertainment, such as the hilarious chair fight, and these all serve to alleviate the underlying darkness of the story. Even the villain has an appeal.


In Peter Lorre, Hitchcock captured a diamond villain. Lorre was a Hungarian Jew who after a successful stint in German Expressionist cinema in the 1920s fled to France, then Britain due to the rise of the Nazis. Having been to Germany in the 1920s and impressed by what he saw in Lorre’s astounding acting, Hitchcock was only too happy to exploit the situation and offer him a role in this film. Lorre could not even speak English at the time but this only added to the villainous flavour of his character (Abbott, the kidnapping political assassin). You could say that some of the evil mannerisms he displays are borrowed from his most notable early role as the child killer in M (1929, Fritz Lang). This and the synthetic scar to his face, captured in the movie posters to sell the film, make him quite the threatening-looking individual and one that would go on to influence the look of Ian Fleming’s supervillain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, from many of the Bond films.


Many people will remember Hitchcock’s own remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much from 1956 more so than the original. This is mainly because it had a bigger budget and was sold on a bigger platform, i.e. in Hollywood. It also had James Stewart in his most prominent form as well as Doris Day and her famous voice. The remake switched up some of its locations (Morocco instead of Switzerland) and effected some subtle changes to the storyline but it was essentially a shot-for-shot remake. The obvious differences were the Technicolor, the exotic flavour, the glamour and the ramping-up of the action. The loss of British wit was the unfortunate exclusion. As Hitchcock himself said: ‘the original was the work of a talented amateur, while the remake was made by a professional’. This may be true but if I was to choose between them, it would be the original all day. There is a looser and more gratifying feel to it. Obviously shot on a lower budget, it still manages to do so much with very little and Lorre’s acting is just a delicious delight. Hitchcock was very much someone who had a wickedly dry sense of humour and this is perhaps something that the Hollywood studios did not pick up on and were not willing to encourage. Thankfully, it is presented in all its glory here.


The 39 Steps (1935)
(Gaumont-British Picture Corporation)
Featuring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll

The ‘Everyman’ mistaken identity scenario is something that Hitchcock played with throughout his career and The 39 Steps could be described as his first successful go at it. Robert Donat basically plays a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, embroiled in an international scandal involving murder and a spy conspiracy. After a woman he meets and understands to be a British government spy is fatally stabbed somewhere in London, he makes his way to Scotland in order to uncover what the woman was alluding to when she spoke of ‘The 39 Steps’ – it appears to be related to a plan of stealing government secrets. He then understands that he has been accused of murdering her, making him an unexpected fugitive on the run. He acquires an unwilling participant in his unraveling situation: an innocent blonde (played by Madeleine Carroll) who he embraces on the train in an effort to allude the authorities hot on his trail (not unlike the moment when Cary Grant meets Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest). The reluctant romantic pairing of Donat and Carroll and their burgeoning chemistry, which borders on abrasive one minute to sexual sparks the next, is the key selling point to the story. It is an early sign of Hitchcock scoping out sexual politics as a sub-plot device and is one that works effectively here, given the brilliance of Carroll and Donat.


The relentless suspense that Hitchcock creates in The 39 Steps is what allows the film to stand out. The story of the ‘innocent man on the run’ was a common set-up for subsequent Hitchcock films and it has been re-hashed several times in Hollywood over the years too (Frantic, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Enemy of the State). The screen capture above of Richard Hannay (played by Donat) hiding behind a grassy knoll in the foreground and the British police in pursuit in the background exemplifies this suspense. Both the hunters and the quarry are brilliantly captured in the one shot – the menacing stance of the policemen and the breathless terror on the face of Hannay. Hitchcock also accentuates the suspense and the exhilaration through rapidly changing location settings, from the wilds of the Scottish Highlands to the Forth Bridge outside Edinburgh (see image below) to the London Palladium Theatre. We even have a heart-stopping moment where it appears that Hannay has been shot dead by the villain, Professor Jordan. For a moment the story advances without explaining what has actually happened to Hannay but, as it eventually and conveniently turns out, the bullet hit a hymnal book in his breast pocket and never went through!


I must also mention the demonstration of Hitchcock’s ‘MacGuffin’ principle that is first utilised in The 39 Steps. He would go on to explicitly talk about the principle in interviews and frequently utilise it in his later films:

“…two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”

Alfred Hitchcock speech at a Columbia University lecture in 1939

As alluded to above, Hitchcock treated a ‘MacGuffin’ as something in the film that appears to be important to the characters but in fact turns out to be irrelevant. In this film, the ‘MacGuffin’ is the spy syndicate called ‘The 39 Steps’, which Hannay is attempting to expose so as to clear his name. It is nothing more than a plot device designed to toy with the audience (see Twin Peaks: The Return for endless amounts of ‘MacGuffins’!) and it is used perfectly here.


The 39 Steps was also the first true Hitchcock film that deliberately set out to titillate and arouse the audience and there are elements of raciness and sexual intrigue abound here. The interactions between Hannay and Pamela, in particular, are quite sexually charged – their embrace on the train for example, or when they are sitting handcuffed together as she begins to roll off her stockings, pulling his hand up and down her leg at the same time (no doubt a very controversial scene for the time). Madeleine Carroll was the first quintessential ‘platinum blonde’ of Hitchcocks’ films, offering those trademarks of cold calculation, elegant beauty and strong will. She is the representation of Hitchcock’s perfect female character and an essential element to his elaborate plotting. Pamela, like many of Hitchcock’s subsequent female protagonists, is not just a love interest and is by no means a secondary character. Without her interventions Hannay’s quest for innocence would have been doomed.

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Secret Agent (1936)
(Gaumont-British Picture Corporation)
Featuring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre

Secret Agent is based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham so you know the material is of a high standard from the beginning. A young John Gielgud plays a World War I soldier who, when on leave, finds out that the British government have announced him as having been killed in action. He is then informed that this has happened so that he can be utilised in a plot to infiltrate a German agent in Switzerland on his way to cause international mayhem in Arabia! Still with us? The plot of Secret Agent may appear elaborate but in many ways it is very similar to both of the films described above, just with a few more bits and bobs of intrigue thrown in. Hitchcock is entrusting us to enjoy the thrills and spills of an international spy adventure (a bit like a black and white Bourne film…but funnier). Indeed, Gielgud’s relaxed and suave demeanor allows us to remain rest assured.


But alas, enter the colourful (literally) Peter Lorre, this time playing an ‘exotic’ assassin who has been assigned to assist the undercover Ashenden (Gielgud’s character) in his mission. His character is invariably known as ‘The Hairless Mexican’ and ‘The General’ and he is present as comical relief for much of the film, despite the insinuation of deadliness in his job title! The plot has added intricacies of course: a blonde called Elsa is thrown into the mix (Madeleine Carroll again), playing another undercover operative acting as Ashenden’s wife during the mission. Elsa then attracts an admirer, an innocent holidaymaker (played by Robert Young) who is besotted by her beauty, and thus we are enveloped in a comic-thriller-romantic-caper. It is actually hard to keep up with who is bad and who is not as there are quite a few interested parties involved but this is Hitchcock’s desired premise and it works really well.


The assassination scene is particularly discussion-worthy. Hitchcock here utilises a device he would evolve over time – the Point-of-View technique. Lorre’s assassin takes it upon himself to carry out the deed on the supposed spy as Ashenden has second thoughts. He lures his target out to the slopes for a mountain climb where he can easily push him to his death. Ashenden takes to a safe distance and observes through a telescope. As the audience we are allowed to enter into Ashenden’s eyes and witness the lead-up to the creepily executed murder through the viewfinder (see image above). All of this is cleverly inter-cut with scenes of Elsa, who is aware that the murder will take place, watching over the victim’s dog as he scratches at the door awaiting the return of his master. The death, which we never actually get to see, is marked by three things: Ashenden’s useless cries of ‘watch out’, the dog’s mournful howls and the uncontained reaction of horror in Elsa’s face. It is the perfect example of early Hitchcock suspense and you can clearly see how effective it is in its simple execution (pun intended).


Peter Lorre and Gielgud are tremendous in this and Carroll also provides flair and bite to proceedings with her continuation of the ‘perfect female’ role that Hitchcock craved – fiery but elegant! Lorre is perfectly placed as a comical but treacherous character. His eyes bulge out of every scene. If ever there was an actor who could act with just his eyes, it was Lorre. Then we have the legendary John Gielgud in the lead role – effortlessly arrogant and always looking clever. Gielgud was a prominent theatrical and Shakespearean actor, who in the same way as Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in more recent times, could offer a commanding ‘stage’ presence to the film screen. Whether it was by talking clearly and rhythmically or delivering lines with impeccable timing, you could always rely on Gielgud to elevate a scene to a whole different level of class. I think Secret Agent is one of the most underrated classics of Hitchcock’s oeuvre and is well worth a watch if you can find a copy.



Frenzy (1972)
(Universal Pictures)
Featuring Jon Finch, Barry Foster and Anna Massey

Frenzy marked a long-awaited return for Hitchcock to his homeland in London and it ended up being a relative triumph, given that he had not seen much success in his previous two Hollywood outings – Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969). The title of the film was somewhat symbolic of Hitchcock being let loose, off the leash so to speak, and allowed to plumb the depths of the macabre with graphic depictions of violence that he would never have been allowed to create in an American studio. Frenzy is a dark, nasty and very adult thriller about a serial killer and rapist loose on the streets of London. There is no other Hitchcock film that presents itself in such a raw and brutal way as this one and it likely marks his most controversial release…but then again, how could anything have been more controversial than Psycho at the time it was released?


The plot follows a familiar Hitchcockian theme of mistaken identity but here it is not flavoured with international intrigue. It is grounded in something more sinister and disturbing – cold-blooded murder. Unlike Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, the lead character Dick Blaney (played by Jon Finch) is not what you would describe as heroic or even likable. He is introduced to us as a rude, threatening and an unreliable waste of space, whose life is heading into the gutter anyway. His erroneous identification by the authorities as the rampant ‘neck-tie murderer’ is therefore only slightly empathised with because, as we learn earlier on in the film, the real murderer is actually a good friend of his (Bob Rusk, played by Barry Foster). Blaney may be unaware of Rusk’s killings at this stage but he is still knowledgeable of his assaults on women, given the fact that his ex-wife Brenda runs a dating service which Rusk has been banned from using. This ban leads Rusk to rape and murder Brenda, which then sets off the suspicion on Blaney, who is spotted leaving the crime-scene: an incorporation of circumstantial chance that Hitchcock so loved.


In a nod towards The 39 Steps again, Blaney, after realising his helpless situation, embarks upon a citizen detective role in order to clear his name and prove that the real killer is in fact Rusk. The path forward for the un-masterly Blaney is not very clear and Hitchcock, in his usual effective toying with the audience, throws a range of obstacles in his way – his girlfriend is murdered by Rusk, then he is caught by the police and put in prison, and even in the final scene after escaping prison he is caught battering another of Rusk’s victim with a tyre iron (even though he believes it to be Rusk). The trademark Hitchcockian suspense that filters through in films like North by Northwest and Vertigo is replaced here by a series of maddening circumstances that prompt the lead character’s malaise to spiral beyond his control. The focus of the film is not about the identity of the killer, it is more about the killer’s unremarkable ability to get away with it and continue to commit more murders just as the ‘hero’ and the police fumble and stumble in their respective pursuit and investigations.


Hitchcock shot a film that is very dark and grizzly in tone but also very rich in cinematography and humour. He is in his element here, seemingly reveling in the fact that he is shooting the film in the colourful surrounds of his youth: the energetic streets and markets around Covent Garden in central London. The opening scene is a sweeping aerial capture of the bustling Thames and London Bridge (see image above), with Ron Goodwin’s grand and regal-sounding orchestral score as the soundtrack. The credits are abruptly broken by the image of a floating, naked corpse, who we find out from the gathering and clearly intrigued (as opposed to horrified) crowd to be the recent female victim of the ‘neck-tie murderer’. Hitchcock too provides wizardry with the camera throughout Frenzy, not only in this audacious opening sequence.


There are many effective tracking shots such as the aftermath of Brenda’s murder, when the killer runs out of her office and into the street before slowing to a walk so as to not attract attention. The camera pans to watch him walk down the street as he composes himself and eventually disappears into the crowds, and then pans back around, all in real time, to the other direction, this time observing Blaney as he obliviously wanders into the office to have a meeting with his ex-wife (see image above). The moment when Blaney’s girlfriend is murdered is also notable as Hitchcock decides not to show it, but instead has the camera follow the two of them up the stairs into her apartment and then slowly retreat downstairs and onto the busy daytime street below after the door is closed.


It must be remarked too how the portrayal of characters here is much removed from the representations seen in Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies. There is an obvious realignment of focus with the British films he had made in the 1930s. He taps into the less restrained and more wry attitudes of English actors, something that may come with experience on the stage and possibly, a more holistic command of the English language perhaps. The humour in the dialogue never really subsides despite the seriousness of the situation. The final words uttered by the chief inspector to the foiled killer is indicative of this: “Mr. Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie.” Hitchcock stated that he wanted to showcase the British appetite for the macabre and sensational and this is what you get here. It takes the tabloid headlines of rapists and murderers and presents it in no uncertain terms – sleazy, greasy and downright evil. But at no stage does Hitchcock want us to walk away from it. He wants us to engage in it, however unwillingly. The utterly gripping and darkly comical 12-minute ‘potato truck’ scene where Rusk chases after evidence (a pin with his initials held in the hand of his victim’s body) that would have his identity revealed, is a prime example of this.


Family Plot (1976)
(Universal Pictures)
Featuring Bruce Dern, Karen Black and Barbara Harris

Hitchcock returned to Hollywood a few years after Frenzy with Family Plot: not a film that keeps to the same standard of his earlier catalogue and certainly does not maintain the same quality established by Frenzy. You do get the feeling though that this is Hitchcock at his most jaded. In his late 70s, grossly overweight and his health being in a deteriorating state, I can imagine that the control over his work was starting to wane. In many ways, this was a Universal Pictures production with Hitchcock’s name attached as a selling point more than anything else. But having said that, there are several Hitchcockian elements evident in Family Plot and one could be pressed to describe it as underrated. I don’t intend to do that but I will discuss it a bit further anyway.


Family Plot is fundamentally not a thriller but more an accessible comic caper and mystery. It concerns an intricate web of rich old women, psychics, ransoms and diamonds. A scheming couple (played by Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris) seek to locate the whereabouts of an elderly and wealthy woman’s nephew, whom she wants to make an heir out of. As it turns out, the nephew (played by William Devane) is a bit of an evil shit, who killed his adopted parents, faked his own death and now carries on as a kidnapping jeweler. His accomplice and girlfriend (played by Karen Black) goes around wearing a hat, a leather jacket and sunglasses for no other reason but to look alluring and mysterious (see image above). This ‘bad’ duo then become aware of the other ‘good’ duo on their tails and enlist another accomplice to ‘take care of them’. The ensuing action leads to a whole series of thrills and spills that involves a strenuous, high speed descent of a car, a fiery explosion, the kidnapping of a bishop, a chance confession and an attempted framed suicide. Exhilarating stuff, you could say!


There is a sense that the film is attempting to combine essential Hitchcock components with quirky nuances in Hollywood cinema from the time. These nuances would have been perpetuated by the American New Wave of the early 1970s. Bruce Dern (see image above) and Karen Black were two very prominent actors in that movement and were obviously hired to play roles that could deliver some of those nuances (as an aside, Al Pacino and Faye Dunaway were also considered) but their appearances here are awkward and out of place. One wonders how this was ever meant to work, particularly as Hitchcock always considered actors to be elements of his mise-en-scѐne rather than an embodiment of emotions and social consciousness, which many of the New Wave actors regarded to be their raison d’être. Perhaps it is the coming together of these two forces that make this film slightly off-kilter.


I think a good example of this is the ‘runaway car’ scene: the afore-mentioned ‘good’ duo of Harris and Dern, feeling a bit disheveled by events, hop into a car that has had its brakes cut and proceed to swing wildly out of control as they descend down the hill-roads of California. As the driver, Dern tries to weave the car out of the way of traffic while Harris, as the passenger, becomes audibly horrified, flailing about uncontrollably and unhelpfully for Dern, whose tie she grips on to and accidentally chokes (see image above). One cannot deny the deliberate and overcooked comedy to the scene (it was apparently a spoof of the traditional car chases from the likes of the Bond movies) but the suspense too sits very prominently and uneasily with the viewer as is the Hitchcock way. The combination of humour and horror and the inability of Dern and Harris to truly deliver a balance to either emotion here demonstrates the difficulty in this film as a whole.


There are some good elements to Family Plot though. It is after all a dark comedy which sits well with the Hitchcock fandom. There are lots of ambiguity to the characters – the ‘good’ duo of Harris and Dern practice deception as much as the ‘bad’ duo of Devane and Black do. There are interesting sexual politics at work – Harris, although presented poorly in the ‘runaway car’ scene, is clearly the more dominant and smarter of the duo (see image above). Dern essentially portrays a gullible jackass of a man, who cannot see that his partner fakes being a psychic at the end. The film deals us a intricate hand that is deceivingly less complicated than the sum of its parts. The comedy at the end of the day is way more accessible than say Frenzy. Indeed, the screenplay by Ernest Lehman was meant to be darker but Universal wanted it to be cleaner for release and Hitchcock, not one to care anymore, relented. Anyhow, Family Plot was never meant to be deep and it was never intended to deliver shocks and overbearing intensity. It was, and still appears to be, more reflective of the man’s indulgent appetite for story intricacy and viewer manipulation.


Pitting the first three films described here against the last two films is probably unfair. They do represent two very different phases in Hitchcock’s career – one where an energetic and talented young director begins to hone his craft in an environment that is new and starting to establish itself, and another where an established, more experienced and perhaps jaded auteur is trying to make sense of a rapidly evolving world. Noting this we can see very clearly that all of the films discussed here, displaying plenty of definitive Hitchcockian trademarks (international intrigue, blondes, famous landmarks, staircases, unexpected plot twists), are a demonstration of his progression in the art. What we see in his direction consistently is a meticulous devotion to a script, or alternatively, a vision of how the story should work. His plan was always to titillate and challenge audiences, sometimes holding us in contempt as nothing more than hungry animals in need of entertainment. Each scene and each shot was carefully rehearsed and this is why his films are worth re-watching over and over. Equally this is why many of his actors had derogatory things to say about him and thus complained about being treated like cattle (to which Hitchcock famously replied that this is what they are). He has long since shuffled off his mortal coil but I imagine today, if he was still alive, there would be plenty of revelations about his behaviour towards and treatment of women that he worked with – Tippy Hedren for example often accused Hitchcock of bullying and sexual harassment, and even states that he ruined her career. This may be so, and I have no doubt his presence in the film industry became questionable as his macho control and influence grew, but when viewing his films directly as a measure of his craft, you cannot deny his lasting prominence as the diviner of modern film entertainment.

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