I recently finished a full chronological viewing of all 52 of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving feature films. It was a quest I’d wanted to tackle for a long time, providing me with a chance to fill in the gaps of films I’d not yet seen while also revisiting old favourites and ultimately determining a ranking of all of them, best to worst. In some cases, the results were predictable. It was no surprise that I ended up with a top 3 of Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. But there were also films I loved much more than I ever realised (The Lady Vanishes and Shadow of a Doubt, both of which ended up in my top 10) and films I thought I liked that I didn’t think much at all (The Birds, Spellbound). But perhaps most interesting of all was the chance to unearth underrated gems in the form of films that either have terrible reputations or are barely talked about at all but which I thought were great.
In deciding to compile a list of what I think are the eleven most underrated Hitchcock films, I’ve been quite strict with what I consider to be underrated. There are other lists of this kind out there online and invariably you’ll see Rope, Frenzy and The Wrong Man among those films mentioned. Though I loved all these films, I decided that they have ultimately undergone too much of a positive critical reappraisal in recent years to count and I wanted instead to make room for some of the less-frequently mentioned titles. My choices in this regard are debatable, with a couple of picks probably having undergone similar renaissances depending on what you read or who you talk to. But in my book, these eleven films feel like the ones that could really use a critical leg up from someone who loved them. So here’s the list:
The 1928 silent comedy Champagne proved to be something of a surprise in that, having read almost nothing but terrible reviews, I found it completely charming. I can see why some people don’t think much of it (Hitchcock himself certainly didn’t), it is feather-light and a tad lacking in plot but for me it turned both these things into virtues, offering up a confection as bubbly and refreshing as it’s titular beverage.
Champagne is the story of a madcap heiress who’s father, fearing she will make a frivolous marriage to the man he has forbidden her to see, pretends to have lost his fortune in order to force her to reassess her life. Like Hitchcock’s previous silent film Downhill, Champagne has a premise ripe with satirical potential that it doesn’t quite fulfil but unlike Downhill it opts to have fun with it, rather than deliver a crushing tale of despair with no real moral centre. More importantly, that trademark visual flair is here in spades. Almost immediately a champagne bottle is opened directly towards the screen, making the viewer recoil from the cork before the screen is soaked with bubbly. It feels like a more benign take on the famous shot from Edwin S. Porter’s pioneering 1903 film The Great Train Robbery, in which a bandit fires his gun directly at the audience. In both cases we recoil , but Hitchcock’s version leaves us refreshed rather than dead.
There are little moments like this throughout, as well as wonderful throwaway jokes, such as when Hitchcock draws our attention away from a crucial confrontation between the father and daughter and instead focuses on a man trying to get past them on the stairs. He makes several attempts to get round them as the argument continues, before politely excusing himself and going back up the stairs again. Champagne’s willingness to overshadow a key emotional beat with a joke (involving a character we’ve never seen and will never see again) speaks volumes about its easy going approach to narrative, as well as it’s subtly subversive relationship with audience expectations.
Another thing Champagne has going for it is the lead performances. Gordon Harker, so memorable in a supporting turn in earlier Hitchcock film The Ring, relishes his opportunity to play the larger role of the father, all twitchy frustration and conflicted anger born of a genuine, if overbearing, love for his daughter. As the daughter, Betty Balfour is one of Champagne’s main draws. Apparently Balfour was one of the biggest British stars of the 20s and you can see why. She has an immediate sparkle and instinctive comic timing, as well as an ability to make her character into someone sympathetic when she could’ve been a one-dimensional spoilt brat. She brings Champagne to life even in those moments when the narrative slows and Hitchcock’s steady directorial hand falters.
Champagne may well be the lightest film Hitchcock ever made but it is all the better for it. For me, when watching Hitchcock’s little-seen silent films a lot of the enjoyment came through fascination rather than straight entertainment. Champagne provided both and left me somewhat perplexed at its utterly dire reputation.
10. WALTZES FROM VIENNA
It’s really annoying when people reduce a director to just their most well-known works, to the extent that they act confused if a film deviates from that pattern. When people bemoan the absence of gangsters in a Scorsese film or sneer at comedy in a Bergman film, the irritation comes not so much from them obviously not knowing much about the varied output of those directors, but rather from the fact that they would rather boil their canons down to something repetitive. They don’t just think these great artists’ filmographies are one-note, they actually want that to be the case, and complain when it’s not. If they had their way, we wouldn’t have Smiles of a Summer Night or Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, we’d lose The Last Temptation of Christ and A Lesson in Love. And we certainly wouldn’t have Waltzes from Vienna.
The number of reviews of Waltzes from Vienna that begin with “This is a Hitchcock film?!” or “A Hitchcock movie without a murder?” is dispiriting and I tend to get no further in reading them. That’s not to say I don’t read and enjoy reviews that I disagree with. There are plenty of legitimate reasons you could cite for disliking Waltzes from Vienna and plenty have done so eloquently and convincingly. But if you kick off your review with “Where’s the MacGuffin?” you’re immediately demonstrating that your criticisms are founded on a reductive basis and your argument crumbles before it’s even begun. There was never meant to be espionage or suspense in Waltzes from Vienna so people should stop trying to hold its director hostage, especially over work from an era before he became primarily famous for that kind of film.
For the record, Hitchcock hated Waltzes from Vienna and chose it as one of his worst films, a film he only agreed to make so he could keep working after numerous box office disappointments. Also for the record, I didn’t hate Waltzes from Vienna. I didn’t even dislike Waltzes from Vienna. In fact, I think I sort of loved Waltzes from Vienna. The fascinating thing about working chronologically through these early Hitchcock films is you never know when a hidden gem is going to pop up. It happened several times during the silent era Hitchcocks but, after an amazing start to the sound era with the acknowledged classic Blackmail, I began rather losing hope for another little-known treasure among a series of clunky early sound films. Waltzes from Vienna was the last chance for such a thing before the more famous Hitchcock films began. And to my surprise, it delivered a final early jewel.
Waltzes from Vienna comes from a time when films based around operetta were very popular. This era and most of those films are now comparatively forgotten but Waltzes from Vienna is a superlative example. In keeping with the style, it is light as a feather, upbeat, good-humoured, melodramatically romantic and driven by music. A loose telling of Johann Strauss II’s composition of The Blue Danube, the film wraps the musical tale in a love triangle and a conflict between a father and son, with a movingly edgy Edmund Gwenn standing out as Johann Strauss the Elder, jealously bullying his son to quell his aspirations of greatness. The rest of the cast is good too, a refreshing change from some of the stiff performances in the Hitchcock films that immediately preceded Waltzes from Vienna. Jessie Matthews was a regular fixture in the operetta genre and makes for a winningly conflicted leading lady, while Fay Compton’s Countess is an alluringly flirtatious rival for her and Frank Vosper enjoys devouring the scenery as the Countess’s bumbling, pompous husband.
Crucially, Hitchcock seems to have received a bigger budget for this film and he puts it to good use. While some of his then-recent films had felt stagebound, Waltzes from Vienna is handsomely cinematic, lovingly evoking its period detail in a modest but effective way that could almost claim to be lavish if you’re willing to give yourself over to it to that extent. And the film builds to a rousing finale in which The Blue Danube receives its rapturous public debut. It’s a winning structure and the story is peppered with moments of farcical comedy which are always charming and sometimes genuinely funny.
Although it’s usually written off as an anomaly in the Hitchcock canon, many critics have noticed how Waltzes from Vienna kicks off Hitchcock’s preoccupation with waltzes which would return in later films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train and Torn Curtain. Waltzes from Vienna also, for me, shows Hitchcock’s directing getting tighter and more interesting again after several uneven efforts. Apparently this was an unpleasant experience for Hitch but that doesn’t show through on screen. I’m so glad I took the time to finally watch this least-seen of Hitchcock’s films. It’s an underappreciated gem.
9. THE MANXMAN
The Manxman was another great surprise on my chronological Hitchcock journey. I knew it had a fairly decent reputation but for me this immediately stood out as Hitchcock’s finest film of the silent era, unseating the more widely heralded The Lodger. I wouldn’t say The Manxman is the culmination of everything Hitchcock learned on his early films because those visual flourishes that were so crucial to films like Downhill and Champagne, and which would continue to characterise his work in the sound era, are largely absent here. What The Manxman represented to me instead was a director who had grown confident enough in his abilities to not have to lean into those showier techniques. Instead, The Manxman is a smoothly told piece of melodrama that entertains thoroughly without drawing attention to itself.
The 1894 novel by Hall Caine on which The Manxman is based is said to be a soapy affair and that is clear from the story we see here. We’ve seen love triangles between best friends and the woman they both adore many times before and the material may not seem promising but the key is in how the story is told, just as the masterful melodramas of Douglas Sirk could’ve been irredeemable in the hands of lesser directors. Taking advantage of the ravishing Cornwall landscapes (standing in for the Isle of Man, where the story is set), Hitchcock provides an immersive backdrop to this story of loyalty, passion and longing. The cast is absolutely fantastic, with Anny Ondra emerging as a forerunner for the famous Hitchcock blondes of later years with a multi-faceted performance that starts out playful, turns intensely passionate and ends with all the life drained away by circumstances and the cruel gender politics of the time which essentially remove her needs and desires from the equation altogether. Equally fine are Carl Brisson as the man who loves her and thinks she loves him, and Malcolm Keen as the man she does love but whose loyalty to his friend, not to mention his lofty career ambitions, scupper their chances of happiness.
These plot threads are all pulled together in an unlikely finale which, if you can give yourself over to the melodrama, is still remarkably effective. I found The Manxman extremely powerful and sometimes almost unbearably sad. Its characters shamble through their tragic story making wrong choices and prodded into poor decisions by cruel twists of fate. They do not act maliciously and, in fact, care for one another very deeply but that can’t stop them barrelling towards emotional ruin. The final shots of the film are hauntingly sad and stayed with me long afterwards. If you have no stomach for melodrama, The Manxman may not be for you but I thought it was terrific and a real sign of how Hitchcock had found his feet as a director by this stage.
8. THE PARADINE CASE
When producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock to Hollywood at the start of the 1940s, their’s was a partnership of great promise and right off the bat it produced the Best Picture Oscar winner Rebecca, forever enshrined as a classic Hollywood film. But from that first film onwards, Hitchcock and Selznick clashed, with Selznick’s constant interference stifling Hitchcock and driving him to distraction. Ultimately, Selznick and Hitchcock would only make three films together and their subsequent collaborations never recaptured the magic of Rebecca. The Paradine Case was their final film and by all accounts Hitchcock seemed thoroughly bored by the whole production. Selznick badgered Hitchcock throughout the process, installing himself as editor, rewriting the screenplay (and taking sole screenwriting credit for himself, despite the extensive work of James Bridie and Ben Hecht) and demanding constant reshoots. In the end, the budget for this comparatively modest courtroom drama ballooned to almost as much as that spent on Gone With the Wind.
Selznick’s interference and Hitchcock’s indifference have long caused The Paradine Case to be seen as a lesser Hitchcock film and it is often picked out as the director’s worst. But, compromised vision though it may be, I actually really like The Paradine Case. I’ve always had a soft spot for courtroom dramas and The Paradine Case is a solid, fairly unusual example. Many critics complain that we don’t get anywhere near a courtroom for over an hour but that time is not wasted, with Hitchcock setting up the scenario of a happily married lawyer falling under the spell of his mysterious new client. Others bemoan the lack of a big Witness for the Protection style twist or “You can’t handle the truth” melodramatic flourish, but The Paradine Case is a much more sober affair than that. It focuses on the relationships between the characters as much as on the murder trial, with Ann Todd standing out as the sweet-natured wife watching her husband slip away from her. She gets the film’s best speech, delivered outside the courtroom.
The courtroom proceedings themselves are sufficiently involving and reach a satisfying conclusion, bringing Gregory Peck’s carefully controlled performance to an emotionally affecting head. Hitchcock used an innovative technique to shoot the courtroom scenes, with four different cameras trained on each of the key players simultaneously, allowing him to shoot in long takes to then be edited into smoothly flowing scenes. Multiple cameras had been used before but always pointed at the same subject. This new approach gives the courtroom sequences an increased realism even as the melodrama reaches its peak.
Aside from Todd and Peck, the cast of The Paradine Case is adequate but not performing at the top of their game. Charles Coburn’s avuncular presence seems at odds with the tone, while Charles Laughton’s wild-eyebrowed judge is a tad too larger-than-life, coming from the same place as Laughton’s previous scenery-chewing performance for Hitchcock in Jamaica Inn. Alida Valli, credited as just Valli and claimed as a new Selznick star, is suitably icy and mysterious as Mrs. Paradine but the script gives her surprisingly little to work with. The Academy, meanwhile, looked past all these performances to instead bestow a Best Supporting Actress nomination on Ethel Barrymore for her role as Laughton’s haunted wife. This nomination for what feels like a vague, barely three minute sketch has continued to bewilder those who watch The Paradine Case but the history books show that there was more to Barrymore’s performance, including a critically lauded scene in a museum that was included in the cut shown to Oscar voters. It secured Barrymore’s nomination but by the time the film reached the public, the scene had been lopped out by the cut-happy scissors of Selznick. The footage, along with other scenes featuring Barrymore, was subsequently destroyed.
It’s easy to see why The Paradine Case has the reputation of a weak film. It’s a little self-serious, very talky and feels long even in Selznick’s butchered cut. But this stuffiness and overlength also gives the film a pleasing sense of Hollywood grandeur that fans of classic cinema may enjoy. The themes of destructive passion are gripping and Peck and Todd are both extremely good in their central roles. While Hitchcock aficionados may be frustrated by the obvious compromises, there are still enough Hitchcockian moments to keep fans happy. I would actually go as far as to say that I enjoyed every minute of The Paradine Case, undoubtedly flawed as it is. Neither the disaster many have it pegged as nor the underappreciated masterpiece of its staunchest defenders, The Paradine Case is a fine piece of work.
7. FAMILY PLOT
One of the more famous films on my list, largely due to it being Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot is a terrifically fun little comedy thriller that delivers plenty of intrigue and twisty plot turns without ever taking itself too seriously. In fact, Family Plot comes closer at times to not taking itself seriously enough. There are some pretty wacky scenes, salty little bits of innuendo and even a fourth wall break in the mix. I remember the first time I saw the film I found all these things rather off-putting but returning to it after many years with the dim recollection of what was waiting for me, I actually found the whole thing rather delightful. The quality of the film aside, it appeals to me that Hitchcock ended his career with something that puts a higher premium on fun than anything else. Well into his 70s by this point, I can just imagine him sitting in his chair and saying “Sure, wink directly at the camera. Why the hell not?!”
It’s significant that that infamous climactic wink is reprised by Hitchcock himself on the film’s poster. It’s telling the audience upfront to have fun with this one. There’s still plenty of room in the plot for murder, kidnapping and the usual criminal concerns associated with Hitchcock’s most famous works but there’s also phoney psychics, reluctant, pipe-smoking amateur detectives, hapless assassins, priceless stolen jewels hidden in plain sight, and one of the craziest out-of-control car scenes you’ll ever see. Hitchcock’s previous film, Frenzy, had also been a black comedy but with the grim elements taking precedence. Family Plot aims instead to provoke smiles with its light approach, it’s appeal characterised by a slightly jagged-edged charm.
Although there are other small roles here and there, Family Plot is essentially a four-hander, its story split between two couples. William Devane and Karen Black are the kidnapping jewel collectors and they play it well, especially Black whose unique appeal is used effectively here. But it is the casting of the other couple, the phoney psychic and her taxi driver boyfriend, that is Family Plot’s masterstroke. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern bring these characters wonderfully to life, their dysfunctional chemistry making for a rivetingly unusual lead couple. Both actors, though beloved in certain circles, are underrated in my book. I adore Harris (as did Hitchcock, who had been keen to work with her for some time) and this is one of her signature roles. She is one of those actors who is able to show she’s having fun with a role without once taking you out of the experience. Her psychic readings, in which she channels a spirit guide called Henry, are hilarious, especially when she snaps out of them and earnestly asks “What happened?” as if she hasn’t been controlling it all along. Dern, meanwhile, is great as the boyfriend dragged along on the adventure, his surprisingly adept detective skills proving invaluable.
There are a couple of other notable collaborators here. Ernest Lehman, who previously collaborated with Hitchcock on North by Northwest, wrote the screenplay, while the score is by none other than John Williams. Williams strikes just the right note for a light but potentially deadly caper, delivering one of his more subtle scores. Hitchcock’s direction, meanwhile, is pleasingly laidback for a swan song. He hits all the right notes but there are no real virtuoso moments or big set pieces. The main set piece is probably when Dern and Harris find themselves in an out of control car going down a mountain road. It’s an extremely fun scene but quite honestly it’s directed like something out of a Herbie film. After the excellent location work and real settings of Frenzy, the trademark Hitchcock back projection is here in force again and it’s actually quite endearing and exciting to have it back.
While it’s unlikely that Family Plot is many people’s favourite Hitchcock film, I do think it’s a great time and I had a blast watching it. It was a lovely way to close my Hitchcock festival.
6. MR. & MRS. SMITH
Look at the bottom of most people’s Hitchcock rankings and that’s where you’ll find Mr. and Mrs. Smith. And fair enough, there are plenty of people who legitimately don’t like this film. But read even a handful of reviews and you’ll start to see that same problem cropping up again and again: people complaining that this is a Hitchcock film without suspense or murder or intrigue, as if all those things were meant to be in this screwball comedy and Hitch just forgot to put them in there. When a director becomes as famous as Hitchcock is for a certain type of film, they more often than not get held hostage by reductive viewers who demand the same thing every time. But the Hitchcock filmography is much more diverse and interesting than 50+ variations on Rear Window and those who wish it weren’t are missing out.
Rant aside, I’m not going to point an accusatory finger at everyone who doesn’t like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. After all, you’ll generally find it towards the bottom of Hitchcock aficionados’ lists too. And while I partially attribute my appreciation of Mr. and Mrs. Smith to a personal love of screwball comedies, I can well see how even fans of that genre have struggled to warm to this film. It doesn’t have that rat-a-tat 100mph dialogue associated with some of the more famous examples of screwball, opting instead for a slow-paced, gag-light dissection of 40s gender relations laced with a poisonous but wickedly funny edge. You could call Mr. and Mrs. Smith a tough-to-love film about tough-to-love people. But I love it.
The script, by acclaimed screenwriter Norman Krasna, examines the relationship of a volatile couple who suddenly discover that, due to a minor technicality, they’re not legally married as they had supposed. The obvious solution, to marry immediately, is scuppered when a betrayal by the husband makes the wife think twice about wanting to be together. So begins a lengthy battle between the two, in which anyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths becomes an unwitting pawn. Any comedy about a couple who are perfect for each other because of their mutual awfulness is bound to exist in the long shadow of Leo McCarey’s masterpiece The Awful Truth, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith can’t help but evoke that spectre, although it is ultimately quite different in flavour. There’s a casual cruelty to Mr. and Mrs. Smith that turns some modern audiences off, but this was not unusual in the screwball genre and it only takes a small adjustment of sensibilities to enjoy it rather than be horrified. There are slight line-crossing moments, such as Mr. putting Mrs. in a headlock, but this line between comic embattlement and actual abuse was one that would continue to be prominently crossed in comedy right into the 80s. Fellow fans of the sitcom Cheers, one of the great latter day screwball comedies, will be more than used to having to swallow these objections.
Chief among Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s attractions are stars Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, who are witty, hilarious and commendably unrestrained in their blackly comic toxicity. There’s a common complaint that Mr. and Mrs. Smith just isn’t funny enough but I beg to differ. It’s not the same kind of funny as The Awful Truth, which trots out inspired set piece after inspired set piece, but Mr. and Mrs. Smith is artful at a slower, more character-rich approach. The plot is not simply a clothes line on which to hang the gags and there’s a satisfying weight to how the whole thing unfolds, even if the final scenes head into classic screwball territory. There’s also a very risqué edge to certain parts of the dialogue, which reveal more about the Smith’s sex life and its eyebrow-raising but apparently consensual roughness than was common in 40s films. And the final shot feels positively filthy for its era, a classic Hitchcock sexual metaphor over a decade before North by Northwest ended with a train entering a tunnel.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a film you’d think twice about recommending to most people but I think it’s a slick, unusual and rather terrific screwball comedy. I wouldn’t say Hitchcock should necessarily have delved into this genre again but his one shot at it was far from the disaster many make out. And though casual Hitchcock fans continue to be confused by it, I’d say this is exactly the sort of result you’d expect from a Hitchcock screwball comedy, and what a delicious proposition that is. It’s different, unique and fascinating. And, if you’ve got a bit of the Devil in you, it’s very funny.
5. STAGE FRIGHT
This review contains spoilers for Stage Fright in the final paragraph.
Stage Fright is the second of two films that I always think of as constituting a second mini-British-period for Hitchcock. This was tied in with the creation of Hitchcock and Sidney Bernstein’s short-lived production company Transatlantic Pictures, which was intended to allow Hitch to make films in both Hollywood and London. The company was pretty much destroyed by the disaster that was Under Capricorn, and while Stage Fright began as a Transatlantic Picture, it ended as a Warner Bros. one. This did not effect the film’s quintessentially British flavour however, and Stage Fright feels like a jolly little homecoming, a return to the good-humoured 30s British thrillers that made Hitchcock’s reputation. This is a refreshing change after the slew of films that immediately precede it, which largely, or in some cases completely, lacked the humorous edge so readily identifiable with Hitchcock.
While you can easily draw a line from Hitchcock’s late-30s thrillers to Stage Fright, there are some noticeable differences. The likes of The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes had a terrific energy, packing a ton of thrills and laughs into their short runtimes. Stage Fright runs a little longer, moves a little slower and brings a hint of Hollywood poise to the charmingly loose-limbed formula of the British films. Into the distinctively British surroundings, Hitchcock drops two big Hollywood stars: Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich. Both are great, with Wyman playing a wide-eyed young adventurer getting quickly in over her head and Dietrich essentially parodying her own screen persona as a preening, narcissistic stage actress. While most reviews focus on these two performances, Stage Fright’s major appeal comes from its gallery of great British supporting players. In particular, it’s wonderful to see Hitchcock working with Alastair Sim, one of my favourite actors of the period. Though a comedy legend and hugely popular, Sim was routinely underused even in films where he was given top billing, like Hue and Cry, The Green Man or School for Scoundrels. Here, he is given the meaty role of Wyman’s roguish father, delighted to be drawn into a dangerous adventure by his daughter.
As well as Sim’s reliably entertaining turn, we also get to enjoy the likes of Sybil Thorndike as Wyman’s stuffy mother, Miles Malleson as a pub bore, the scrumptious Joyce Grenfell in a brief skit at a garden party and, in a performance that almost steals the film, Kay Walsh as an opportunistic cockney maid. The joy of these performances is perhaps a little offset by how they begin to fragment Stage Fright into a series of vignettes, entertaining in themselves but not quite flowing as effortlessly as The Lady Vanishes, which managed to make its superficially similar gallery of comic creations coalesce into a focused narrative. Stage Fright instead makes sideshows out of its grotesques, a different approach which creates an extremely likeable but slightly slower and less satisfying end product.
On the rare occasions when Stage Fright is discussed, it is usually in relation to the false flashback, a device that Hitchcock ultimately regretted and which many audience members resented. The film opens with Richard Todd’s man on the run recounting to Wyman how he came to be in trouble with the police. We see a flashback of the events as Todd tells them but they ultimately turns out to be a lie. While some seemed to see this as not playing fair with the audience, I’ve always thought it’s a clever and unconventional twist fiendishly embedded in the narrative. Perhaps having watched the film in an era when unreliable narrators are less uncommon, I was more prepared. There’s a lot of nonsense been talked about the supposed contract a director should have with their audience and Hitchcock himself seemed surprisingly easily swayed by such talk. I’ve always thought that way of thinking only serves to impose limitations on creativity. Stage Fright’s nifty little trick works well for me and is entirely in keeping with the film’s mischievous air. As the great comedian Stewart Lee has observed in his work, it’s easy for an audience used to the mundane to confuse innovation with a mistake.
4. YOUNG AND INNOCENT
I looked forward to Young and Innocent coming up from the moment I started my chronological Hitchcock adventure. It’s a film that tends to be looked on as minor Hitchcock and its ultra-light tone and fairly thin plot have seen it consigned to semi-obscurity, save for one key moment that tends to be the only context in which Young and Innocent gets discussed. But I’ve always had a massive soft spot for this film and rewatching it last night just confirmed its place as a personal favourite.
Young and Innocent was the last of Hitchcock’s British collaborations with screenwriter Charles Bennett and, following the strange Secret Agent and the darker Sabotage, Young and Innocent is a breath of fresh country air, with its light, whimsical tone and quaint parochial settings. All of the Bennett collaborations feature some level of humour but Young and Innocent comes closest to being an outright comedy, with its wrongly accused man on the run encountering a quirky collection of characters and some absurd situations. Chief among these is a hilarious scene at a children’s party, in which he is forced to adopt a ridiculous pseudonym.
Derrick De Marney is great fun as the man on the run but it is his reluctant accomplice, police chief’s daughter Nova Pilbeam, who stands out. In fact, Young and Innocent slowly positions her as the main protagonist above De Marney, and it is a wise move. Having appeared as the kidnapped daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Pilbeam had since grown into a strong leading lady and here she is magnetically charismatic and convincingly layered as a conflicted woman drawn into a caper against her will. De Marney and Pilbeam pretty much carry the film between them, although Edward Rigby is also great in a late-arriving but pivotal role.
Young and Innocent is far from a perfect film. There are a few too many dodgy model shots standing in for a railway location, including one that makes the baffling choice to try and include the lead characters by utilising dolls. The film feels like it was shot on a shoestring budget so there’s quite a bit of artifice elsewhere, from back projection to obvious studio sets. The plot itself suffers from its central quest to uncover a lost raincoat seeming like nowhere near enough evidence to exonerate the accused as he seems sure it will. And there is a moment involving blackface which is inextricably linked with crucial scenes. It’s not nearly as offensive as many of its contemporary examples of blackface but, in the end, it’s still blackface and still hard to watch in a modern mindset.
The blackface aside however, all of these flaws only serve to make Young and Innocent more endearing to me. It’s a thoroughly good time throughout and Hitchcock seems to be enjoying himself as much as his game cast. And there is, of course, that one famous shot in which the camera pans for a long time through a large room full of people to finally hone in tight on one very small detail which reveals the identity of the murderer. It’s a virtuoso moment in a modest production.
Young and Innocent isn’t as groundbreaking as Blackmail, as weighty as Sabotage, as crucial to Hitchcock’s development as The Lodger, but I placed it above all of them in my ultimate Hitchcock ranking because Young and Innocent means a lot to me and I enjoy it enormously. It feels like MY Hitchcock film, the neglected puppy in the litter that I’ve chosen to adopt.
I had an inkling going in that I might love Saboteur. I remembered enjoying it a great deal when I saw it nearly two decades ago. Back then I probably assumed every Hitchcock film was a recognised classic but a growing love of film and awareness of the canon in intervening years led me to the realisation that not only is Saboteur not that well loved, it’s barely even discussed. It seems that Saboteur is considered something of a throwaway trifle, usually seen as either an inferior rehash of The 39 Steps or an underdeveloped dry run for North by Northwest. But while the spirit of both films does loom large when watching Saboteur, it is not to the film’s detriment. If anything, Saboteur emerges as a sort of quirky younger sibling. It’s often compared to B-movies but it actually reminded me more of the independent films of the 80s and 90s on which my love of cinema was founded. It’s an action-adventure for the outsider, filled with humorous asides and characterised by a deep distrust of authority, class snobbery and anti-humanitarian cynicism.
What worked so well for me seems to be part of the reason many people dislike Saboteur. There are several speeches and scenes built around the importance of human kindness and giving people the benefit of the doubt, to the extent that a couple of ostensibly good characters make some pretty questionable decisions in regards to helping an escaped, handcuffed man evade the police when they really have no idea of his supposed crimes. It’s a leap you have to make with Saboteur, a film that is so keen for you to tune into its outsider viewpoint that it slips in a truly bizarre scene in which the hero’s fate is placed in the hands of a small community of what would then have been called “circus freaks.” Heavy handed? Most definitely, but by the standards of the era it is also pretty unique and I was more than happy to go along with it.
One of the reasons Saboteur is so frequently overlooked is its lack of a big star presence. Hitchcock films of this era were beginning to be characterised by lead actors like Joan Fontaine, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. Hitchcock originally envisioned Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles here. But by instead casting the lesser-known Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane, as well as a gallery of great B-list character actors in supporting roles, Hitchcock improved Saboteur by keeping it rooted in that “ordinary people” theme. The encounters Cummings’ wrongly-accused fugitive has may be somewhat bizarre at times but this only serves to highlight his ordinariness, making the moments he steps up and uses his ingenuity or courage to navigate a problem all the more inspiring.
Though Saboteur settles into an unusual, good-humoured groove for a chunk of its runtime, it opens with a fairly grim twenty minutes or so, in which Cummings character watches his best friend burned to death and is then accused of the crime while trying to comfort the man’s devastated mother. The fire itself is a tremendously powerful sequence and the emotional fallout is not shied away from. This visceral opening implants the seed of subversion that underscores Saboteur’s subsequent story, in which the police and the high-standing members of the community whom they revere are the villains and society’s outcasts are the heroes.
Amidst its oddball vignettes, Saboteur makes room for plenty of suspenseful sequences and these eventually take over completely, starting with a brilliant, lengthy sequence at a high society party in which the hero struggles to convince oblivious attendees of the imminent danger they are in. The narrative then cleverly switches focus from hero to villain as a chase ensues leading to a superb scene in a movie theatre and a nail-biting finale at the top of the Statue of Liberty which remains Saboteur’s most famous sequence.
Saboteur remains one of Hitchcock’s lesser known films of the 40s but it’s first rate Hitchcock in my book. If you’re looking for one of Hitch’s most purely enjoyable adventure films, pop this one in on Friday night, crack open a beer and discover one of the Master’s hidden gems.
NOTE: In order to discuss Lifeboat properly I will need to drop in some pretty heavy spoilers.
Lifeboat is the first of four limited-setting films Hitchcock made in the 40s and 50s and it remains the least-seen of the four. It is also arguably the most ambitious, at least from a narrative point of view. The other limited-setting films were all set in reasonable-sized rooms while Lifeboat confines itself entirely to the titular vessel, into which it crams nine characters. These characters are a mixture of British and American civilians and service members left adrift after their ship was sunk by a German U-boat. With the U-boat also destroyed in the battle, a German survivor is pulled aboard the lifeboat, but not everyone is keen on keeping him there.
So begins one of Hitchcock’s richest and most complex morality plays. Its focus is on both character and philosophical matters relating to life and death, with the wartime setting muddying the moral waters further. This factor certainly muddied the critical and commercial waters as well, with several critics incandescent at what they felt was too sympathetic a portrayal of a German officer. While it’s easy to understand why some felt this approach was less than judicious during wartime, it’s hard to believe when watching Lifeboat now that the German character was considered sympathetic. What he actually is is another morally compromised character on a boat filled with them. Lifeboat is entirely concerned with these moral grey areas and so to portray the German as a wholly despicable character without nuance would be to torpedo the film itself, without any narrative lifeboat to save it.
To force Lifeboat to become yet another tedious film about pure allied heroism in the face of unadulterated German tyranny would have been to rob the era of one of its most fascinating examinations of human nature. Lifeboat has no easy answers and in large part it refuses to prod us towards a particular moral judgement. The events of the story are carefully worked out in order to challenge our views of right and wrong to the fullest but there is no finger-wagging omniscient presence demanding we come down on one side or the other. In fact, the film’s climactic line, which at first seems abrupt but on further rumination feels entirely appropriate, seems to openly acknowledge that the answers Lifeboat seeks are beyond human comprehension. Perhaps this is why Lifeboat doesn’t end with the rescue many may expect. The fate of the reluctant crewmates is left uncertain, trapping them forever in a celluloid purgatory. The cyclical final plot point suggests that this may be entirely the point. To quote Eleanor Rigby, “no one was saved.”
Lifeboat features another top notch cast. In particular, Talulah Bankhead is one of Hitchcock’s finest leading ladies, enjoying every minute of her role as a razor sharp journalist who slowly watches all her treasured possessions disappear over the side of the boat. The screenplay is perhaps the greatest asset though. Written by Jo Swerling, it was adapted from a story by John Steinbeck, who subsequently disowned the film and requested his name be taken off it. The studio refused to comply with these wishes, and Steinbeck was ultimately Oscar nominated for the since-discontinued Best Story Oscar. Hitchcock also received a Best Director nomination, perhaps unsurprising given that even Lifeboat’s harshest critics could not deny the film was a technical marvel. Filmed using four different lifeboats and a large water tank, Lifeboat captures the feeling of being adrift in an endless body of water, without ever falling foul of the artifice of some of Hitchcock’s earlier films. This effect was not achieved without some difficulties however. Illnesses dogged the production, including multiple cases of pneumonia for Bankhead and the near drowning of Hume Cronyn, who cracked two ribs during a simulated storm.
For all its reputation as a talk-heavy philosophical piece, Lifeboat isn’t lacking in incident either. Plenty happens on board the boat, including a riveting amputation scene and a chaotic, impulsive murder which might’ve been the only moment when Lifeboat’s critics cheered but is also the key to why a simple rescue finale would not have made narrative sense. The film is often seen as one of Hitchcock’s bleakest but the tone is balanced by the vivid characters and the ever-present wit in Swerling’s excellent script. If it doesn’t immediately hit with the entertaining force of Saboteur or the melodramatic heft of Rebecca, Lifeboat instead creeps up on you over time as you think more about the film. Years ago I had it rated at a middling 3.5 stars, perhaps due to my inability to fully comprehend what the film was aiming for at such a young age. After watching it again, I initially rated it a strong 4 stars. Then, after thinking about it for the rest of the evening, I upped this to 4.5 stars. Finally, after I couldn’t shake the film from my mind, I just gave in and upped it to the full 5 stars. I’m confident now that it deserves that rating and even rank it above classics like Rebecca and The 39 Steps. Lifeboat itself is also a classic, but currently a cult one. It refuses to be dragged under by demands of a greater moral simplicity and that has made it resonate more strongly down the ages. It’s a brilliant film that demands a wider reappraisal.
1. TORN CURTAIN
Torn Curtain is renowned primarily for being one of Hitchcock’s weakest films, a hurriedly shot, plodding Cold War thriller with miscast stars, meandering plot and little of the inspirational direction that made Hitchcock a household name. It’s also famous for being the film that ended the working relationship between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Hermann, whose score was rejected in favour of an unremarkable effort by John Addison. Studio control is the thing that is often blamed for many of Torn Curtain’s shortcomings, with Universal exercising power over Hitchcock after a couple of commercial flops and Hitchcock reluctantly but diligently complying with their wishes. Why, then, does Torn Curtain reside at number 7 in my all-time Hitchcock top 10?!
I love Torn Curtain. I had no idea I did until I started watching it recently and found myself quickly absorbed, amused and gripped. Sometimes a wonderful potboiler is just what you’re after and Torn Curtain ticks those boxes but I also think it has moments of real invention that clearly betray the identity of its director. Some of Hitchcock’s less-celebrated tells are on display here too, including ropey back projection and dodgy fake sets, but if that bothers you to any great extent you might as well avoid the whole Hitchcock catalogue! At this stage in his career, Torn Curtain feels like an old-fashioned Hitchcock film to be sure but after a few more lurid experiments it feels great to be back in that comfortable world again. Perhaps my chronological watching schedule affected my rating a little, with Torn Curtain being a sigh of cosy relief after the awkward squirm of Marnie, but I’m pretty sure I’d love Torn Curtain under any circumstances.
I may not agree that Torn Curtain is plodding, uninspired or bereft of memorable moments, but one criticism I can get on board with is that of its stars. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, as the engaged couple who find themselves undercover behind the Iron Curtain, are less than suited to their roles, with Newman being adequate and Andrews barely given a chance to be anything but underwhelming. I love both these stars but the studio’s contention that shoving their top grossing actors into any film would be a formula for success is immediately exposed as a mistake in an opening love scene in which there is no chemistry whatsoever. However, Hitchcock turns this problem into a virtue by shifting the focus of the film from the stars to his international supporting cast. It’s clear that the story of the leads troubled relationship was intended to feature more heavily but Hitchcock wraps that up long before the end, allowing him to shine the spotlight on the oddball collection of supporting players who bring Torn Curtain to life. Standouts include Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek, a German security officer with a whimsical fascination with American colloquialisms; Ludwig Donath as the impatient, hedonistic genius Professor Lindt; and Lila Kedrova as an exiled Polish countess desperate to obtain a US Visa. This latter performance is particularly wonderful, equal parts tragic and comic, with Kedrova registering a whole lifetime of tragedy being the eyes of a character who spends mere minutes on screen before the camply affecting downbeat ending to her story. Also good value for money are Günter Strack as the comically serious Karl and Tamara Toumanova, gamely playing on her own identity as a prima ballerina to create a star dancer with a potentially deadly self-obsession.
Torn Curtain came out at the height of Bond-fever and is often seen as a pale imitation of Bond. As someone who can’t stand Bond films, I only really saw superficial thematic links, with Torn Curtain emerging as a warmer, far less smarmy adventure. It reminded me more of a less overtly comic version of Hitchcock’s own North by Northwest, with its smooth transition from one set piece to another. The official line on Torn Curtain now seems to be that it contains only one worthwhile scene in the brutal fight to the death between Newman and Kieling, in which Hitchcock attempts to illustrate the difficulty of killing a person, something which Torn Curtain’s contemporaries often made look easy. It’s an excellent scene but there are plenty of other fantastic, overlooked moments that trump it. The museum chase, later homaged by Torn Curtain fan Wes Anderson in The Grand Budapest Hotel; the ingenious and suspenseful sequence with the two buses; Newman’s race against the clock to dupe Professor Lindt out of crucial information by questioning his intelligence; the ballet escape and tense cargo crane deception. The hits just keep coming.
It completely took me aback just how much I loved Torn Curtain. Part of the joy of my Hitchcock quest has been discovering underrated gems and I’ve amassed several of them, as this list hopefully attests. But Torn Curtain takes the biscuit. I ended up ranking it above Psycho. Freaking Psycho, man! Am I crazy? Quite possibly. Am I delighted. Most definitely. Put that Bernard Hermann score back in and who knows what heights this film could’ve scaled!