Tagged: romance thriller

Suspicion (US 1941) – Studying a Classical Hollywood film and its production context

These notes were first produced for a lockdown Zoom event in 2020 focused on the film Suspicion (1941), one of the RKO classic films held by the BBC and still currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK. Often overlooked in Hitchcock’s filmography, the film is topical again because of #MeToo issues both in its plot and also the experiences of its female lead, Joan Fontaine. (NB This post is over 4,000 words.)

Introduction

Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most celebrated and most discussed filmmakers of the 20th century. But much of his reputation rests on a handful of famous titles drawn from distinct phases of his career. In the later stages of his career he was able to in effect run his own production unit, even when based on the lot of a major studio. He became one of the Hollywood directors promoted as an auteur and gave long interviews to the French critics turned directors, Claude Chabrol, Erich Rohmer and François Truffaut. He was also a showman and celebrity figure for audiences, promoting his own work in unique ways.

Hitchcock on set for Suspicion with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine

Suspicion is an important work for several reasons but in some ways it has been overshadowed by other films he made in Hollywood in the 1940s, especially Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), both of which starred Ingrid Bergman, and his earlier success Rebecca (1940) which announced his arrival from England. Rebecca had made a star of Joan Fontaine who had been nominated for an Academy Award. She would go on to win for Suspicion, the only actor to do so in a Hitchcock film. But during this period (from 1939-46) Hitchcock was under contract to David O. Selznick. Rebecca was a Selznick production but in 1941 Hitchcock and Fontaine were loaned out to RKO and Suspicion was made as an RKO film. Hitchcock was in control of the production but there is still a debate about whether RKO pressurised him into changing the film’s ending.

The ‘romance thriller’

Hitchcock was one of the few Hollywood directors recognised by audiences and critics alike during the studio period. His late 1930s films made in England were often hits in America and he became established as a Hollywood director through his work for Selznick. ‘Hitchcockian’ later became a term to describe the films that carried his ‘signature’ – i.e. his choice of themes, genre, performers, narrative structures etc.. Many of these films were forms of the ‘romance thriller’. This isn’t the title of a genre so much as a general term for several different kinds of films. They all had at their centre a romantic/sexual relationship between a man and a woman, but this was a relationship threatened by one of two possible dangerous forces. 

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, one of Hitchcock’s early romance thrillers

Some of the films placed a couple in danger from an external threat, often by accident. Several were spy thrillers like the two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and 1956. In this case the couple can only survive by fighting together to overcome the external threat. There is romance and thrills (and often spectacular action). The other scenario sees a relationship which faces a danger from ‘within’ when, although the couple may be in love, one or both of them become suspicious about the other and a psychological struggle between the two ensues. In some cases there are both dangers, so in North By Northwest (1959) Cary Grant is pulled into a spy story by accident and finds himself attracted to Eva Marie Saint, who may be one of the spies, but is also possibly ‘turned’ by Grant’s charm and sex appeal.

Hollywood in the 1940s was a distinctive filmmaking environment for a director like Hitchcock. The ‘studio system’ was in full operation and one of its features was the ‘self-regulation’ practised by the studios by means of the Production Code, sometimes referred to by the name of its founder Will Hays and sometimes by its principal administrator Joseph Breen. It’s ironic perhaps that some of the most salacious stories, often so-called ‘hardboiled novels’, were bought by the studios which then had to find ways of making the scripts acceptable to the Breen Office. The code was enforced from 1934 until the late 1950s with a  requirement for traditional values and protection of moral standards, largely based on the teachings of the Catholic church in the US. This was not likely to appeal to Hitchcock, who, although he had a Catholic  background himself, loved to explore personal morality and enjoyed nothing more than focusing on the excitement and danger of sexual relationships.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie

As is well known, Hitchcock tended to cast certain kinds of female stars in his films. The ‘ice blonde’ would be one such type, most famously represented by Grace Kelly. Hitchcock would argue that these characters were ice on the surface but hot beneath. He tried to cast elegant actors he could ‘bring down’ rather than the opposite (i.e. those of humbler origins) who he might ‘lift up’– which he said never worked. Towards the end of his career he would be criticised for his treatment of Tippi Hedren in particular when she appeared as the lead in The Birds (1962) and Marnie (1964), both films which featured challenging roles for a young and inexperienced actor. Marnie is in some ways a mirror image of Suspicion. How would Hitchcock fare in the contemporary environment of #MeToo? It might be possible to argue that the two films that Joan Fontaine made with Hitchcock and which made her a star, Rebecca and Suspicion, are both narratives in which a young bride (Fontaine was 22/23 when she made the films) is faced with an older, sexually attractive and arguably potentially sinister man, whose actions towards her are abusive.

‘Gaslighting’

This term has come to mean the long process by which a powerful man psychologically undermines the confidence, the beliefs and in extreme cases the will to live of a woman, possibly as part of a sexual powerplay or for financial gain if he can control her money in some way. Either way it is clearly abuse. The term comes from the play Gas Light (1938) by Patrick Hamilton which was successfully adapted for the cinema, first in the UK as Gaslight (1940), directed by Thorold Dickinson and starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. Set in 1880s London, the first thing a new bride notices is the flickering gas light. She is unaware of her husband’s activities in which he secretly searches the closed rooms at the top of the house (where previously a young woman was murdered) which causes the gas pressure to drop. The flickering light and the strange noises from above become part of a nightmare that the husband creates while assuring his wife that she is imagining things. (There is a detective who is suspicious of the husband.) The film was remade in Hollywood in 1944 by George Cukor with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. Ms Bergman won the Oscar for her performance.

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (US 1944)

It’s not difficult to see why the term is used now but a little caution is needed in understanding the context of the 1940s. These films would then have been thought of as melodramas. Often they might have featured the major female stars of the period (Ingrid Bergman followed Gaslight with her two Hitchcock films). There were, arguably more roles and more ‘meaty’ roles for female stars in this period and in addition they often were able to use properties written by women (Daphne du Maurier in the case of Rebecca). Hitchcock was supported on all his films by his wife Alma Reville who acted first as editor and then as writer or ‘story consultant’ throughout his career. Hitchcock also employed Joan Harrison, first as his secretary in 1933 and then increasingly in a role complementary to that of Alma. Harrison travelled with the Hitchcocks to America in 1939 and her expertise was recognised by MGM who hired her as a screenwriter in 1941. She was an Oxford graduate who had also studied at the Sorbonne and in 1943 became a producer at Universal and one of the few women to hold contract producer roles in the studio era. Both Joan and Alma contributed to the script of Suspicion.

The female audience for Hollywood productions was also a major factor in the kinds of films made in the 1940s. This was the era of the ‘woman’s picture’, films built around stars such as Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. Films were often adapted from novels such as Stella Dallas by Olive Higgins Prouty which was a major hit for Stanwyck in 1937 (with both earlier and later versions in 1925 and 1990). Film audiences have changed in their composition over time. The 1940s saw a greater proportion of women, particularly between 1942 and 1945. What kinds of films did these audiences (sometimes women in groups) want to see? We know that in the UK, James Mason became a star in the wartime period. In retrospect it seems a shame that Hitchcock did not use Mason until North by Northwest in 1959. Mason’s attraction for audiences in the 1940s was partly down to his roles that might be described as ‘gaslighting’, e.g. in The Man in Grey (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944), They Were Sisters (1945) and The Seventh Veil (1945).

In 2020 a new adaptation of Rebecca received mixed reviews but a fair amount of interest. There are complex reasons why audiences seem to prefer certain types of films at certain times and that will be one of our questions about Suspicion – both in terms of what was actually presented on screen and what ‘might have been’.

‘Englishness’ on screen in America in 1941

Suspicion is odd in the sense that it presents an adaptation of a British novel, by a British filmmaker with a nearly 100% British cast, produced on a Hollywood sound stage. The film also represents a very ‘English’ vision of an upper middle-class rural society. The significance of this is that in 1940/41 (the film opened in the US in November 1941), Hollywood and large swathes of US public opinion were determinedly ‘neutral’ about the war, partly because of the strong German communities in Chicago and other parts of the country.

The British casting was possible because of the large Hollywood community of British actors, although some of them had already returned to the UK to enlist. Others were attempting to find ways to contribute to the war effort while still working in the US. Hitchcock himself was already in touch with the UK Ministry of Information about ways in which he could support the war effort. This angered Selznick since he felt he was paying Hitchcock’s wages.

Joan Fontaine (1917-2013)

Joan was the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland who had already become a Hollywood star through her roles opposite Errol Flynn for Warner Bros. To avoid confusion, Joan took one of her mother’s names when she began a contract at RKO in 1935. When she was cast in Rebecca she had already appeared in several films, including some leading roles, but not in films that had much prestige or box office success. Selznick put her under contract after the success of Rebecca and, like Hitchcock, she found herself being ‘loaned’ to RKO. (This was a lucrative move by Selznick since the fee paid by RKO was much greater than the salaries he paid out to Fontaine and Hitchcock.)

Joan Fontaine with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

The young Fontaine perhaps regretted her decision to sign for Selznick. She found herself suspended by Selznick when she refused some of the roles he suggested for her and she was caught between the manipulations of Hitchcock and the controlling influence of Selznick. Between them they did contribute to her success in Rebecca and Suspicion, but it wasn’t easy for her. Fontaine also found it difficult to build a rapport with Grant who is reported to have found her ‘unprofessional’. One difference between Fontaine and both Grant and Hitchcock is that she had no other work between Rebecca and Suspicion while in the same time period, Grant and Hitchcock were working on at least two other titles.

It’s worth noting that Fontaine made comments about Hitchcock that have been repeated by other female stars and about other directors (e.g. John Ford) along the lines that they sometimes felt bullied or manipulated by their male directors but that they felt that this sometimes deliberate harsh treatment did make them better actors. The #MeToo issue can be found in the production itself as well as in the script.

Fontaine was very beautiful in her early twenties and she received a third Oscar nomination in 1943 for The Constant Nymph. She was popular with audiences in the early 1940s but perhaps feared being trapped in the same kinds of ‘romantic melodrama’ roles. In her later films Fontaine was cast in a wider range of parts. Her biggest critical success was for her own company Rampart Pictures in Letter to an Unknown Woman (US 1948). In that film she begins as a teenager and ends as an older woman. As she got older she gradually moved into more theatre and TV work and given she began very young as a studio contractee, she didn’t make as many films as might be expected over her long career.

Cary Grant (1904-1986)  

Cary Grant was an established A list star by 1941. He had learned to play against a number of sometimes older and ‘strong’ female stars such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. In most of these roles, Grant was at worst cast as a ‘cad’. He wasn’t a ‘villain’. Compared to Fontaine, he  was vastly experienced and had worked with directors such as Cukor, Stevens and Hawks. He hadn’t worked with Hitchcock and one of the possible issues watching Suspicion is the urge to think about his three later roles for Hitchcock. He  had actually worked once on a film with Joan Fontaine but she had only a relatively minor role in Gunga Din (1939).  

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

Suspicion (US 1941)

(SPOILERS: This discusses some of the plot so you may prefer to read this section after watching the film.)

Suspicion was adapted from the 1932 English novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox (under the pen name ‘Francis Iles’). Rights to the novel were purchased by RKO in 1935 but the studio could not formulate a production proposal until Hitchcock discovered the possibility on his arrival. The novel has been described as a ‘psychological suspense novel’ and the same author’s previous novel Malice Aforethought, was described by one reviewer as “possibly the best shocker ever written”. Since ‘suspense’ and ‘shocker’ are key terms in the Hitchcock universe, it’s not surprising that he was attracted to the property.

RKO productions at this point were usually budgeted lower than productions at the other major studios and there are no spectacular Hitchcock action sequences in this film. In some ways, it resembles Hitchcock’s British pictures. Apart from the California coast standing in for East Sussex, most of the film was shot on the studio lot. Focus thus shifts to some of the sets, especially the house that Johnnie buys for Lina.

Although Joan Fontaine had dual UK-US nationality,  she had not lived in the UK and Selznick was concerned about her ‘English accent’ (which seems to me very good most of the time). Cary Grant had arrived in New York from Bristol in 1920 aged 16. The other writer involved on the screenplay, Samson Raphaelson, was selected by Hitchcock possibly because after working with Lubitsch he might be able to bring a lightness to the dialogue. Otherwise the screenplay was the work of Alma and Joan Harrison. The cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. was American but had worked in France and in the  UK, including on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and also on Mr and Mrs Smith (1941), Hitchcock’s previous film at RKO. Much of the rest of the crew were RKO contractees, including Van Nest Polglase as Art Director. Franz Waxman the film’s music composer had been praised for his score for Rebecca. RKO’s nominal producer on the shoot, Harry Edington is not included in the credits titles. Hitchcock appeared to have a relatively free hand.

Their first meeting . . .

The film begins with the meeting of the two central characters on the train from Waterloo – a familiar Hitchcock setting – and uses a familiar device to make Lina look ‘mousey’. She wears a hat and coat, a buttoned-up cardigan, ’sensible’ lace-up brogues and gloves. She’s wearing reading glasses and perusing a book on child psychology. It’s not as dowdy a presentation as Bette Davis is given at the start of Now Voyager (1942) before her ‘makeover’ and the glasses can’t disguise her pretty eyes, but this first ‘look’ at Lina gives Johnnie the opportunity on their next meeting to loosen her hair as part of his long-term goal of seducing her. This second meeting, alone at the top of a low hill, does seem to set up a metaphor of ‘falling in love’ for Lina and possibly preparing her for a different kind of ‘fall’ by Johnnie. “What did you think I was trying to do, kill you?” Johnnie asks as they struggle in the wind and that hat and coat from the train are literally blown away. As well as loosening her hair (a familiar sexual symbol), Johnnie makes fun of her through his creation of a pigtail and also his first use of “monkey face” as an ‘endearment’. This single scene continues with some remarkably provocative dialogue, ending with Lina’s implication that Johnnie’s behaviour (and her own response to it) might cause her father to have a stroke.

Johnnie makes fun of Lina’s hair and calls her ‘monkey face’.

We might consider a comparison between Suspicion and Marnie (1964). The two women are linked by their relationship with their horse. Marnie loves her horse ‘Forio’ as a substitute or a displacement of her sexual desire. Lina suggests to Johnnie that if she got her bit between his teeth she would have trouble handling him. Both women are in a difficult psychological position via the confident, ‘strong’ men who seem eager to gain control over them. Marnie’s condition seems much more serious, but Lina is the one whose lover might be aiming to kill her.

The narrative proceeds apace with Lina falling more deeply in love even as she begins to discover that Johnnie has no money and is expecting her to  inherit from her father. The death of Lina’s father is a key moment in both psychoanalytical terms and in the narrative development. Are we worried now because Lina is going to be both more dependent on Johnnie and perhaps more frightened about what Johnnie might do? The reading of the will and the drive along the cliffs are markers for later events. The narrative introduces a secondary character whose role seems to be to further confuse Lina’s understanding of Johnnie and what she knows about him. This is ‘Beaky’, an old ‘chum’ played by Nigel Bruce who specialised in character parts as a bumbling aristocrat or military type – best known for playing Dr. Watson in the Hollywood Sherlock Holmes films. Can Lina trust Beaky, who seems incapable of deception? Bruce became a popular supporting actor for audiences in this period. 

Beaky with Johnnie and Lina

One narrative strand that develops in the film is the sense that Lina has to act like a detective, discovering what Johnnie is up to. At the same time ‘detective fiction’ becomes part of the plotting. When Lina comes out of the bookshop (did you spot Hitchcock at the postbox?) and meets Mrs Newsham, she learns about Johnnie at the racetrack. In turn, Mrs Newsham notices the detective novels Lina has bought for Johnnie. Later we will meet Isobel Sedbusk, the crime writer who Johnnie has been quizzing about poisons. Isobel Sedbusk explains to Lina that the ‘murderer’ in her novels is actually her hero and this is also Hitchcock’s own view as he expressed in talking about the film and its ending. 

Lina plays detective looking for a crime book that Johnnie borrowed from Isobel

Hitchcock the showman talked about his ideas at length in interviews and in pieces he wrote. In one piece for the New York Times in 1957, Hitchcock wrote about ‘English Murders’ (See Gottlieb, 1995: 133). He suggests that ‘real English murders’ are very dark and very few films are based on them because the murderer is not a character audiences can identify with or as the film trade puts it, carry the vital element of the ‘rooting interest’. This is what in Suspicion made Hitchcock decide that the idea of Johnnie as a murderer had to be a figment of Lina’s imagination. This is odd because of course, the script was based on a novel, not a real case. More likely, one might think, that pressure was put on Hitchcock because Cary Grant’s star image, though it could cope with ‘suspicions’, could not be damaged by the suggestion that he was a cold-blooded killer. (Note that in 1960, with Psycho, Hitchcock did use a real serial killer as the inspiration for his ‘shocking’ film at a time when the Production Code was beginning to break down and the director could become more daring.)

There are many different views about the ending and why Hitchcock chose the fantasy option. Hitchcock himself tells another story about how RKO executives asked him to cut out any of the darker moments featuring Grant, “but the resulting cut only lasted 55 minutes”. This story also refers to Hitchcock’s working method which matched John Ford’s idea of ‘editing in the camera’. Hitchcock storyboarded many scenes and only shot the footage he knew he would use. This infuriated producers like Selznick who expected directors to provide wide shots and alternatives for each set-up so that films could be recut at a later stage. This was impossible in the case of both Hitchcock and Ford.

An interesting observation came from the French critic Jean-André Fischi. He argues that Hitchcock’s films are often ‘about’ how film narratives work – as if the film is a kind of contract with the audience in which the director agrees to show the audience ‘how it is done’.  In the case of Suspicion, Fischi argues, the ending is such a let-down (‘Oh yes, you were wrong’) that it forces us to think back over all the clues and instead of dispelling doubts, the ending creates a new sense of disquiet. (see Roud ed.1980: 506) 

Reception

Suspicion is certainly less well-regarded by critics and film scholars than the most well-known Hitchcock titles, but this isn’t reflected in the industry or audience response to the film.

Sight and Sound’s American correspondent, Herman G. Weinberg reported:  

“Hitchcock has not been able to re-capture that first fine careless rapture he had in England and his new film, Suspicion, which might at the very least have been not worse than Rebecca as an excursion into the macabre, emerged as a diluted version of an interesting psychological story, which added up to nothing but ennui at the end.” (Spring 1942).

By contrast, here’s what an American trade paper reported for its readership of independent cinema exhibitors: 

“Brilliantly directed and acted with skill by a group of expert performers, this drama  should prove thrilling fare for adults, particularly of the class trade. Even though the story is unpleasant, and the character played by Cary Grant unsympathetic, so interesting is the plot development that one’s attention is held to the end. The credit for this is owed to a great extent to Alfred Hitchcock, who again shows his mastery at directing thrillers.The closing scenes, in which the heroine, thinking that her husband is about to kill her, tries to jump from a speeding car, are so tensely exciting that one is left trembling at the conclusion. (Harrison’s Reports, September 1941)

And here are some comments from US newspaper reviewers:

“Certain to move and amuse you as much as it makes your hair stand on end.” (New York Herald Tribune)

“A distinctly superior picture.” (New York Post)

“A masterpiece in disturbing emotionally draining drama. Adult, astounding, pulling knowingly on its psychological undertones.” (Chicago Herald-American)

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, one of the most influential critics of the period suggests it is not Hitchcock’s best because the script doesn’t offer the director much to work with but:

“Still he has managed to bring through a tense and exciting tale, a psychological thriller which is packed with lively suspense.”

It is clear that in the US, Hitchcock ’s films are expected to do best in urban, up market cinemas. Even so, Suspicion attracted big enough audiences to be deemed a hit by the trade press. (Most of his films were hits – Hitchcock was ‘hot’ in Hollywood in the early 1940s.)

Unfortunately it is more difficult to discover what UK audiences made of the film. Monthly Film Bulletin’s ‘D.E.B.’ – reviewers were then only known by their initials – offers a generally supportive review praising Fontaine and Grant and “smooth direction” which “adds largely to the mounting excitement”.

It’s worth noting that at this time interest in psychology and psychiatry was much greater in the US than in the UK. It is also worth remembering that audiences in the UK in December 1941-January 1942 had very different moods because of the war. Americans were still getting used to the idea that they were at war which came a few weeks after the film opened. In the UK this was a very bad period with the fighting still going against the UK – though the fact that the Americans were now allies was a welcome change.

In terms of current writing about the film, I recommend the two internet sources below by Alison Light (1996, online by October 2020) discussing Rebecca and current debates about gaslighting and Kristen Lopez’s 2016 review of Suspicion:

“As the audience worries about Johnnie’s intentions it’s impossible to act against him. The Cary Grant persona is in full effect and it’s why the film works so well when it’s setting him up as the villain, and it’s also why the film’s ending is such a crushing disappointment. Not only does it completely belittle Lina’s intelligence, but it also requires extreme jumps in logic to make sense.

This beautifully produced psychological suspense thriller may have more gendered notions of psychology than are timely for today, but to watch Grant flirt with villainy is beyond delicious!”

References

Gottlieb, Sidney (ed) (1995) Hitchcock on Hitchcock, Berkely: University of California Press

Light, Alison (1996) ‘Love to death: Hitchcock, du Maurier and Rebecca, Sight and Sound, May

Lopez, Kristen (2016) Review of Suspicion on https://ticklishbiz.com/2016/07/06/suspicion-1941/

Roud, Richard (ed) (1980) ‘Alfred Hitchcock II’ by Jean-André Fischi, in Cinema a Critical Dictionary Vol 1, London: Martin Secker and Warburg

Spoto, Donald (1983) The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock, London: William Collins

Roy Stafford   17/11/20  

Stage Fright (US-UK 1950)

Stage Fright is an unusual film in several ways and seems to have been dismissed as ‘lesser Hitchcock’, partly because the director himself later spoke about it as a failure. It was the first of the films Hitchcock made for Warner Bros. after his attempts to make features for his own company Transatlantic Pictures. The two Transatlantic films were distributed by Warner Bros. so it wasn’t a big shift in industry terms. Stage Fright seems in some ways a reversion to ‘English Hitchcock’ and in this respect rather different to The Paradine Case (1947) made for Selznick in London. The latter title perhaps has an ‘international’ feel with Louis Jordan and Alida Valli in important roles and several leading American character actors supporting Gregory Peck as the star. Jane Wyman still fresh from her Oscar success in Johnny Belinda (1948) leads the cast of Stage Fright and is convincing for me as a young Englishwoman. Marlene Dietrich is a star singer but the rest of the cast is stuffed with well known British faces. The film is also one of Hitchcock’s more successful comedy hybrids with a winning performance from Alastair Sim (though Hitchcock perhaps found Sim ‘too much’ at times).

Adapted from Selwyn Jepson’s novel Man Running by Whitfield Cook and Hitchcock’s wife and fellow filmmaker Alma Reville, the novel’s title alone suggests a Hitchcock film. The change of title for the adaptation then points to a narrative in which a range of ‘performances’ by different ‘actors’ become central to the narrative. The opening credits appear over a theatre safety curtain which then rises to reveal the streets around St Paul’s with wartime bomb damage still visible in the open plots where buildings have been demolished. The film will end with the safety curtain coming down.

Jonathan (Richard Todd), Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim) and Eve (Jane Wyman)

Driving past St Paul’s is Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) in her open two-seater with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). Almost immediately Cooper begins to explain why he has asked Eve to drive him out of town. He begins a long flashback which will reveal details of how he has helped the singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) escape from a murder scene in which her husband has been killed. But in doing so, Jonathan has incriminated himself. Eve must be infatuated with Jonathan since she appears to accept his story and the implication that he is besotted with Charlotte. She takes Jonathan to the coast and he hides out in her father’s house while Eve returns to London to try to find out more about Charlotte and how she might discover how to prove Jonathan is innocent. It is this opening with its flashback that has proved controversial about the film. Today it perhaps doesn’t cause the same problems. See what you think when you’ve watched the film.

Eve has to ‘act a part’ to get close to Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich)

At this point the narrative appears familiar but also altered from the ‘romance thriller’ structure that Hitchcock had been developing since the mid-1930s. Jonathan effectively disappears from the narrative for the entire central section of the film. He is ‘replaced’ by Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding) who is in charge of the murder enquiry. Eve is a drama student enrolled at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and she hopes to use her performance skills to get close to Charlotte. She approaches the Inspector in the hope of learning something but there is clearly already an attraction between them and she christens him ‘Ordinary’ Smith. ‘Ordinary’ has replaced Jonathan as the active agent in the narrative. The investigation will play out in a typically Hitchcockian manner with misunderstandings aplenty. Eve’s parents live separately but in the circumstances are re-united to help Eve. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike make a suitable ‘odd couple’ who might help or hinder. The other significant character is Charlotte’s maid played entertainingly by Kay Walsh in a rather sour Cockney role. Walsh had been a lead player in the 1930s and 1940s and this is one of her early ‘character roles’, the kind of roles female lead players were often expected to take as they got older.

Jonathan with furrowed brow, concerned about Charlotte

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot details, so I’ll just work on some of the interesting angles re Hitchcock’s approach. The reason I re-watched Stage Fright, which I had seen many years ago but largely forgotten, was because one of the paper’s in last weekend’s Hitchcock Symposium on Performance was by Melanie Williams on ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. Todd is fourth-billed in Stage Fright, but as Melanie pointed out, in 1950 he was ‘hot’ having been highly praised for his role as a badly-wounded soldier in The Hasty Heart (UK 1949) in which he played opposite Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan. That film was, like Stage Fright, a Warner Bros. picture made in the UK, but in this case in partnership with Associated British (ABPC). Though he was an English public school product (Shrewsbury), Todd was actually Irish and his father was a physician in the British Army. He himself went to Sandhurst and was a Captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and then the Parachute Regiment with a distinguished war record. He was also a trained actor from the Italia Conti Academy. He had all the right credentials but not the persona of one of Hitchcock’s ‘gentlemen’. Melanie Williams’ attribution of ‘neurotic masculinity’ in his role as Jonathan Cooper is apt. Note in the image above that he is convincing with his furrowed brow. But he seems a very different kind of character than any of those played by Cary Grant, Ray Milland or Sean Connery – all ironically less suited to be like an English gentleman but pulling it off all the same. Todd’s other problem was that he was playing opposite Michael Wilding who didn’t have the Hollywood prestige of The Hasty Heart but was one of the top British box-office stars, mainly because of his films with Anna Neagle. My personal feeling is that I’m not particularly taken with either Todd or Wilding as male stars but I can see the logic in their casting here.

. . . Eve is also ‘acting’ when she first meets ‘Ordinary’ Smith (Michael Wilding)

Wilding as ‘Ordinary’ Smith is charming and witty and at the same time slightly vulnerable to Eve’s allure. There is a kind of ‘pairing’ structure in the film, so Eve and ‘Ordinary’ are matched by Jonathan and Charlotte. Perhaps it is a stretch to extend this to Eve’s parents who don’t really act together, but the Alastair Sim character as her father is active in supporting Eve’s ‘performances’. The fourth key player is Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte. It’s interesting that she plays a singer rather than an actor. Her performance (on stage) of the Cole Porter number ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ is one of the highlights of the film and I’ve been trying to think of other singing performances in Hitchcock films and so far I’ve only come up with Doris Day in the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a great performance but used a little differently by Hitchcock. There must be more in Hitchcock’s early career but I’m much less familiar with films such as Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Pleasure Garden (UK-Germany 1925). Charles Barr makes the point in his book English Hitchcock (Cameron and Hollis, 1999) that Hitchcock has always been interested in the role of music in dramas. But another way to look at it is in terms of ‘stage performance’ (or its equivalent). In The 39 Steps (UK 1935), the music hall stage with the ‘Memory Man’ is the setting for the climax and in The Man Who Knew Too Much it is the Albert Hall during a concert. In Stage Fright Hitchcock made use of the stage at RADA (where his daughter Patricia was a student at the time).

Hitchcock and Dietrich were roughly the same age and they had both experienced the German film industry in the 1920s. By all accounts they ‘got on’ well together and he probably didn’t treat her like he did some of his other female leads. Dietrich had learned a great deal about how to be photographed to look her best from Joseph von Sternberg and his camera crews. Hitchcock amazed his own crew by allowing her to dictate lighting and angles for her set-ups. But from the four leads I would pick out Jane Wyman as the revelation. She was in her early thirties when she made the film but I found her convincing as a younger woman. I was also impressed with her performance in All That Heaven Allows in 1955, in which she plays the ‘middle-aged’ widow who falls for Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama.  I realised that I have seen very few of her films and that apart from marrying Ronald Reagan she didn’t make a great impression in her early Hollywood career, often playing second lead in in routine comedies and musicals. It wasn’t until 1946 when Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend was released that she really made a splash. Perhaps it was the early experience of comedy which helped her to get the most out of Stage Fright‘s script?

Hitchcock and Dietrich, seemingly at ease on set

Because the archives of Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin are now easily accessible (free to S&S Subscribers) I decided to see what they thought of Stage Fright. Sight & Sound (July 1950) ran an article by Simon Harcourt-Smith in which he argues that Hitchcock is wasting his talent making films that belong in the “peculiar antiseptic dream-world of the bookstall magazine”. He suggests that if he had been lured by “the comparative ‘sophistication’ of Continental studios”, things might have turned out differently. Having dismissed Hitchcock’s Hollywood work more generally, Harcourt-Smith then turns on Stage Fright. He dismisses the central plotline between Eve, Jonathan and ‘Ordinary’ and finds the only amusement in Sim and Dietrich. He suggests that it isn’t a film at all but merely a collection of turns at a theatrical garden party – a critic’s joke since the theatrical garden party in Stage Fright is perhaps not the best of Hitchcock’s ‘set pieces’. It is this kind of criticism that made Robin Wood despair and write his 1965 book on a selection of Hitchcock’s Films. The MFB review by ‘GL’ was probably written by Gavin Lambert. He makes a similar complaint about how Hitchcock could have made the film more lively if he had not only shot it in London but also re-discovered the style of his 1930s English period. But ‘GL’ does this by arguing each point cogently. The review picks out Jane Wyman as the only one of the leads who succeeds in giving an ‘expert performance’. Dietrich “looks magnificent, sings an entertaining Cole Porter song, but fails almost completely in the dramatic scenes . . .” The highest praise is reserved for the smaller parts.

What to make of all this? I think that Stage Fright is a less successful picture but it isn’t the ‘failure’ that it is so often taken to be. I surprised myself by enjoying the film and by becoming interested in the production. It is clear to me that looking back across the whole of Hitchcock’s career, it is possible to place each of the films in context and appreciate them for what they are rather than what we want them to be. In this case, Hitchcock had got a deal with Warner Bros. which gave him some security after the commercial failure of Transatlantic Pictures, but he knew that he must turn a profit on his first venture for the studio. As far as I can see, the film was popular at the box office and it made a profit. He was able to go on and complete his four film contract with Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954). They were each successful with critics and from this point he was able to make deals with major studios which allowed him sufficient leeway to make films in the way that he wanted (most of the time at least). He was free from his Selznick deal from the early 1940s and able to base himself on major studio lots. In 1955 he began his long stint as the showman of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . .  He wouldn’t return to the UK to make a film until Frenzy in 1972.

Jerichow (Germany 2008)

Laura (Nina Hoss) with Ali (Hilmi Sözer)

Christian Petzold’s new film Undine is due for release in the UK in the next few weeks. In the meantime, MUBI have announced a Petzold season and the first title that has popped up is this film from 2008. I actually bought the DVD of this title from Germany a few years ago but, as is often the case, I didn’t have time to watch it when it arrived so this was a real treat with the knowledge that whatever happened I could finish it this time round. We are big Petzold fans on this blog and possibly even bigger Nina Hoss fans. She stars in this alongside Benno Fürmann who I remember from an early Thomas Tykwer film The Princess and the Warrior (Germany 2000).

Thomas (Benno Fürmann) contemplates a bitemark on his hand made by Laura

In Jerichow Fürmann is Thomas, who has recently left the Germany army with a dishonourable discharge after a stint in Afghanistan. He has returned to his mother’s house in Jerichow, a scattered community along the Eastern bank of the River Elbe in the East of Germany. His mother has just died and after an altercation with a gangster acquaintance he finds himself penniless. But soon he gets a job with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a retail entrepreneur who runs a chain of local snack bars and, having lost his licence, needs a driver. Nina Hoss plays his wife Laura. Thomas quickly spots that Laura is abused and eager for a new man. At this point, most critics make a reference to James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice first published in 1934 and filmed at least four times in direct adaptations.

There is a lot of spying on other characters in the film . . .

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and I find the few online reviews rather baffling. Christian Petzold had already emerged as one of the first of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ to get wider recognition outside Germany and this film played in competition at Venice in 2008. Petzold had already achieved a profile outside Germany with Yella (2007) which also starred Nina Hoss and explored capitalism in the new Germany (i.e. from the perspective of East Germans). Prior to that Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann had been paired in Petzold’s Wolfsburg (2003) which I haven’t managed to find yet.

Ali and Laura together

Part of the problem for critics, especially in North America I think, is the temptation to make the James M. Cain inspiration more important than it is. The context for the triangular relationship is not the Great Depression of the 1930s but East Germany less than 20 years after re-unification. In addition, Ali is an important character as a Turkish entrepreneur whose chain of snack bars includes some run by other migrants. Ali is a complex character. Some readings suggest he is named in reference to the character in Fassbinder’s film Fear Eats the Soul (1974) but that film takes place in the early 1970s in West Germany, in a period when Turks in Germany were just beginning to think about what would happen after the Gastarbeiter scheme ended in 1973. (And Fassbinder’s Ali is Moroccan, not Turkish). Perhaps Ali had been brought to West Germany as a child in 1973/4? Though Petzold gives us some background to Ali’s plans (to return to Turkey, buying a house in the Taurus Mountains), he doesn’t develop this as Turkish-German directors such as Fatih Akin might do. (I note from a Senses of Cinema essay on Petzold that he deliberately attempted to respond to the Gastarbeiter films in Jerichow – but I don’t know which films these might be.) The focus in Jerichow is on the economic impact of reunification on East Germany. The location of Jerichow is significant in that the Elbe was earlier part of the border between West and East Germany. (The filming was actually carried out in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern nearer the Baltic Sea coast.)

The beach is a key location. Ali is attempting a Greek dance.

Jerichow offers an almost procedural study of the snackbar business. Ali soon susses out that Thomas has the intelligence and the skills (including hand to hand fighting) to quickly learn the business and take over while Ali briefly visits Turkey. Ali explains that many of the operators of the snack bars attempt to pocket small amounts of money which over time can mean that he loses a substantial sum. On occasions Ali terminates their contracts and gets someone else to take over. Ali then takes Thomas to a supplier where they spy on Laura. Is she also ‘on the take’ or is she having an affair? I don’t want to spoil more of the plot but it is important to note that Laura’s marriage to Ali is about money and at one point she rejects Thomas with the cry that nothing is about love, it’s all about money. We get only a little background on Laura and nothing about Thomas apart from the intimation that he had an East German childhood. Ali presumably grew up in West Germany and I’m not sure about Laura. Would the German audience notice things I’ve missed?

Several reviews suggest that Laura and Thomas have a very cold relationship. It’s complicated because their sexual attraction is obvious but Laura must be affected by Ali’s abuse. At one point Ali pushes the two of them together to dance, almost as if he is showing off Laura to Thomas. Rather than the film noir about a doomed man who would be the Thomas character in the earlier adaptations, Petzold’s film is a character-driven acting tour de force in which money underpins the lives of all three characters. The ending of the narrative moves further away from the Cain novel. It makes more sense to view the film alongside Yella than to think about it as an adaptation. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more interest in the UK in looking at Petzold’s output since his first fiction feature in 2000. Nine films in 20 years would make a good season and Nina Hoss appears in five. She is also due more exposure. I should also add that Jerichow features several important collaborators who have been with Petzold on many of his features including cinematographer Hans Fromm, editor Bettina Böhler and music composer Stefan Will. There is more to say about this film and I hope to return to it at some point.

Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie, China-France 2003)

Hui Ding (Zhang Ziyi) and Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Toru)

MUBI has recently included several films by the Chinese auteur Lou Ye as part of its rolling monthly programme. They titled their mini-season of Lou’s films ‘Freedom and Defiance: The Cinema of Lou Ye’.  Lou Ye (born 1965) made his first features in China in 1994 and 1995, but it was not until 2000 that he became well-known internationally through the screenings of Suzhou River at international festivals. Suzhou River got a UK release and I used it for a couple of education events associated with ideas about New Wave cinema in China. I think only one of Lou’s subsequent films has even managed even a DVD release in the UK.

Suzhou River gained attention for three reasons I think. First it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ‘play’ with the narrative ideas of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (US 1957). Second, it did so using a subjective camera and other distinctive aesthetic choices and thirdly its presentation of Shanghai as a modern ‘global city’, coupled with the first two points, led to it being seen as a good example of a ‘postmodern’ film at a time when ‘postmodernity’ as a concept was fashionable.

Lou Ye found himself in 2000 being described as a ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese director, something which he resisted. The label has to some extent stuck though it has now dropped out of discussions about contemporary Chinese art cinema. In 2000 it generally described a group of younger Chinese ‘independent’ filmmakers, born after the Cultural Revolution who sought to make low-budget films rather than progress through work with the major state-controlled studios. Co-productions with France, Japan etc. were not uncommon as were links to TV, popular music and other ‘non-cinematic’ institutions. MUBI’s reference to ‘Freedom and Defiance’ was prompted mainly by Lou’s 2006 film Summer Palace which confronts questions about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and led to a Chinese ban on Lou’s films for 5 years.

Hui Ding with her Chinese resistance leader played by Feng Yuanzheng

Purple Butterfly is in some ways a companion piece to Suzhou River, again a film about a Shanghai romance with strong hints of film noir and a complex narrative structure. The film starts in Manchuria in 1928 where there is already a significant Japanese presence following victory in the Japanese-Russian War of 1895 and the subsequent control over the Southern Railway. Japan had also annexed Korea, bordering Manchuria to the east. Zhang Ziyi plays Hui Ding, a young Han Chinese working in a bookshop and learning Japanese. She has fallen in love with Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Tôru) an older Japanese man and the couple spend blissful hours together, seemingly oblivious of the gathering tension in Manchuria. But eventually Itami is recalled to Japan.

The narrative jumps forward to 1930 and the similarly febrile atmosphere of Shanghai, the ‘global city’, a trading port where the Western nations have ‘concessions’. In the next few months Japan will fully invade Manchuria and prepare for invasion of the rest of China. In the meantime, Shanghai is awash with secret agents and resistance groups of various kinds. A young Chinese couple meeting at the railway station are mistaken for another couple and are attacked because they are believed to be carrying secret documents. The young woman (played by Li Bingbing) is killed but her partner Szeto (Ye Liu) survives and begins a search for vengeance. Hui Ding (aka ‘Cynthia’) is now in Shanghai as a member of a secret Chinese resistance group ‘Purple Butterfly’ and it won’t be long before Itami arrives in Shanghai as a Japanese secret agent.

Hui Ding and Itami Hidehiko together in a Shanghai nightclub

Given the relatively simple plot this is a surprisingly long film (128 mins) with some sharp bursts of violence as the agents of the Japanese and Chinese clash. But it is also languorous in dealing with the personal relationships and uses flashbacks, forcing the audience to piece together their understanding of the narrative flow. The big question is will Ding and Hidehiko get together again? If they do, will love triumph over commitment and patriotism? And how will Szeto view Purple Butterfly – which may have been responsible for his girlfriend’s death?

I found the film to be less successful than Suzhou River in fully engaging my attention and I was surprised by this as the background for the romance interests me a great deal. It may be that, as a film drawing heavily on film noir and stories of treachery and deceit, it fails to offer all the genre pleasures inherent in such narratives. Lou seems more interested in the look and ‘feel’ of Shanghai in the thirties than in the narrative events themselves. Ironically he ends the film with newsreel footage from the full-scale Sino-Japanese War that developed after these initial skirmishes – as if he had a wider perspective all along.

Perhaps I was spoiled by my relatively recent experience of watching The Age of Shadows (South Korea 2016) a genuine ‘resistance thriller’ by Kim Jee-woon set in Seoul in the 1920s? That film didn’t have the same level of intense ‘romance’ but it offered much more beautifully choreographed action. However, I don’t want to ignore Lou Ye’s beautiful evocation of Shanghai in 1930 or the strong central performances. Cinematographer Wang Yu (associated with Jia Zhang-ke and Ann Hui among others) offers us many close-ups in scenes with shallow focus and creates a real sense of the crowded streets of night-time Shanghai.  I wanted to watch more of the MUBI season, but as is often the case, I couldn’t find the time to complete my viewings of two other films before they disappeared.

This clip from the film has French subtitles and demonstrates the camerawork and lighting that creates the noir world of Shanghai:

Ek Tha Tiger (India (Hindi) 2012)

A Cuban interlude in a Hindi film

Ek Tha Tiger introduced the pairing of Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif as ‘super spies’ in a Hindi cinema blockbuster for Eid 2012 that became a big commercial hit. It’s interesting to re-visit now that the sequel has been similarly successful after release during the Christmas period of 2017. Though both films are instantly recognisable as mainstream Hindi cinema (or ‘Bollywood’ if you prefer) there are some interesting aspects of both films – and the films themselves have significant differences.

Tiger and Zoya meet in Dublin

In this first outing, Indian RAW agent ‘Tiger’ (Salman Khan) is sent to Dublin where an Indian scientist is working at Trinity College and potentially vulnerable to surveillance by Pakistani agents of ISI who could steal valuable data from him. Tiger and Gopi (Ranvir Shorey) attempt to make contact with the scientist but only get as far as his part-time housekeeper Zoya (Katrina Kaif). Tiger falls quite heavily for Zoya but is attacked by Pakistani agents. Perhaps it’s a SPOILER but I can’t really discuss the film without revealing that Zoya is herself a Pakistani agent. The Dublin sequence ends without revealing what finally happened, but Tiger clearly hasn’t forgotten Zoya and eventually sets out to find her at an Istanbul conference. From here on the two decide to run away together despite knowing that neither security service will rest until they have been silenced in case they compromise their employers. In the last section of the film they are discovered in Cuba.

This very sketchy outline perhaps suggests the kind of ‘romance thriller’ that is often termed ‘Hitchcockian’ since it became that director’s most favoured format, most famously perhaps in North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. This might sound an unlikely reference but there are actually a number of parallels. Like Hitchcock, director Kabir Khan (whose background appears to be in documentary) has an eye for exciting action sequences in well-known settings and Ek Tha Tiger makes excellent use of Dublin city centre with a remarkable supertram fight sequence. Istanbul is the second well-exploited location and full use is made of old Havana for both romantic and action sequences.

The Dublin dance sequence sees Zoya (Katrina Kaif) as part of a pipe band.

Most Indian popular films are ‘multi-genre’ and here the two elements of the romance thriller are joined by the extension into fight sequences from international cinema. The other familiar genre tropes refer to the use of music in Indian blockbusters. There are, if memory serves, two traditional choreographed dance sequences. One which effectively pauses the action in Dublin and a final credit sequence in a fourth location, not identified. Possibly Morocco? In addition there are other songs accompanying, for instance, an extended montage of the couple enjoying the delights of Havana. This is a typical example of how more recent Hindi films have preserved the idea of six songs promoted separately to the film, but reduced the number of ‘performance songs’. Ek Tha Tiger runs for 132 minutes, perhaps 30-50 minutes less than the traditional masala film of earlier periods.

The Pakistan-India history of conflict is reflected in the fights in the film – the conflict is differently handled in the second film. I was intrigued that Havana was used as a location. It was still seen mainly as a tourist destination, but I was impressed that the two central characters did get into the more interesting parts of the city (watching a boxing match for instance) and I did detect a different ‘feel’ to the way in which the narrative was working compared to Anglo-American representations of the city.

Having watched both ‘Tiger’ films over a couple of days, I think I prefer this earlier film. (I’ve written about Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) on ‘The Case For Global Film’ blog.) Partly, my preference is because Ek Tha Tiger involves more ‘romance’ and fewer explosions. It has what seems to be a lighter touch and feels more coherent.

English Hitchcock: Young and Innocent (UK 1937)

(from left) Edward Rigby, Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney and Percy Marmont

Alfred Hitchcock’s films made in the UK in the 1930s have tended to be overshadowed to some extent by his later work in Hollywood, even if some of the titles have gained a high profile after repeated UK TV screenings. The key text for film scholars is Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock (Movie Books, Cameron and Hollis, 1999). Young and Innocent is seen as the odd one out in the series of six successful thrillers Hitchcock made between 1934 and 1938. It is the only one that doesn’t focus on some form of political intrigue. On the other hand it does share elements with several of the other films. What marks it out for me is the terrific performance by Nova Pilbeam, the ‘young’ of the title, who was still only 17 when shooting began. The original title for the film, which was subsequently used for the North American release was The Girl Was Young – a dreadful title in my view and quite misleading. Like many Hitchcock films this one was based on a novel. A Shilling for Candles (1936) was one of the first crime fiction novels by Josephine Tey. She later became a celebrated writer of crime fiction as well as plays and other novels. Barr is quite scathing about the novel and it seems that most of it was changed by Charles Bennett and the other writers who worked on the screenplay. Nova Pilbeam’s character is elevated from a minor character to joint lead.

A vibrant young couple?

The plot is instantly recognisable because of resemblances to The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935). Pilbeam is Erica, the daughter of the Chief Constable of a South of England county police force, who by chance meets a young man, Robert Tinsdall (Derrick De Marney), who has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a woman on a nearby secluded beach. He protests his innocence (thus the second half of the title) and events lead Erica to help him escape. Along the way they fall for each other but they have no time to get well acquainted as the police are chasing them and Robert must find a vital piece of evidence – and this might in turn help the couple find the murderer. The film is entertaining and engaging because of the skills of Hitchcock and his team which includes future Ealing director Charles Frend as editor, Bernard Knowles as DoP and the great Alfred Junge as art director. Pilbeam’s future husband Pen Tennyson (also to become an Ealing director) is listed as Assistant Director. But I think that a great deal of the vitality of the film comes from the pairing of Pilbeam and De Marney. I was struck by something about Nova Pilbeam that reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early lead roles in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). De Marney was actually aged 30 when filming began but, as Barr suggests, he seems younger. They seem a very ‘modern’ couple for the 1930s.

Erica looks for clues about a piece of evidence at ‘Tom’s Hat’ transport ‘caff’

Unfortunately, the vitality of the film is let down at various times by the cheap studio production work. This was a Gaumont-British production, based initially at Shepherd’s Bush, but also at Pinewood. Barr reports a suggestion that the leading cast members might have been on location only rarely since in the outdoor scenes the characters are mainly seen in long shot. Given the results that Junge was able to achieve ten years later in his evocation of the Himalayas filmed in Surrey for Black Narcissus, I do wonder what he made of the model work, especially in the case of the railway station which becomes the location for an exciting chase sequence. The film’s pre-publicity made a lot of noise about the use of location work and Hitchcock generally uses it well. There is also a striking crane shot on the large studio set representing the dancefloor of the ‘Grand Hotel’ where the narrative climax plays out (in a manner something like the music hall ending of The 39 Steps). This sequence is notable for the band whose members are ‘blacked up’ even though they are dressed in lounge suits rather than minstrel outfits. The jazz band is quite good and I was reminded of the best Jessie Matthews musicals of the 1930s. British cinema could match Hollywood at times, but the lack of resources meant that something often had to be skimped. The extras on the DVD from Network include an intro by Charles Barr and a short documentary on Hitchcock. One of the contributors suggests that what attracted Hitchcock to move to Hollywood was the prospect of the resources to do all the things his imagination could dream up.

It’s striking how strong Nova Pilbeam’s performance is. For one so young she commands her scenes like a much more experienced actor. Wikipedia suggests that David Selznik, who would eventually sign a deal with Hitchcock in 1939, was very impressed with Pilbeam and wanted to sign her as well but her agent thought a five-year contract was not appropriate. She didn’t go to Hollywood and instead made several more British pictures as well as working in the theatre. Her career ended in 1950 when she was still a young woman. The decision not to go to America (a similar decision was made by Jessie Matthews, for similar ‘professional reasons’) was later faced by bigger stars such as Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, who both went and made a success of the move. Erica does seem to me to be a character who has equal ‘agency’ with Robert. It would be interesting to compare the role with that played by Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938).

I was surprised to discover that it is Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius, Frederick Muller 1983, who gives a more interesting reading of the film than Charles Barr. Barr focuses mainly on narrative structure but Spoto offers various observations that convince me that his general argument is sound. His basic point is that the film is essentially a gentle comic melodrama, but that it offers ‘markers’ for some of the dramatic highlights of later Hitchcock triumphs and that ideas about illusion and not ‘seeing’ clearly are woven throughout the narrative. So Robert escapes police custody by wearing a pair of spectacles with thick lenses through which he can barely see but which form a good disguise. At the end of the film, the murderer is ‘unmasked’ by the tic he suffers which makes him blink uncontrollably. Spoto reports Hitchcock stating that he placed a children’s birthday party at the centre of the story to act as a symbol as well as a narrative device. The children blindfold a character which allows the central couple to escape the party. This ‘play acting’ is matched by a couple of occasions when characters don a uniform or a costume to pass as somebody else. In terms of ‘markers’ the film includes some interesting set pieces carefully shot on sound stages that perhaps suggest scenes in later Hollywood films like North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1962). If you haven’t seen it, Young and Innocent is well worth tracking down. I watched it on Network’s DVD, a Special Edition as part of ‘Hitchcock: The British Years’.