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Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps the most venerated and studied film director of all, yet quality presentations of his early work are still hard to find. Public domain copies of The Secret Agent and the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much can be difficult to watch, not only because they are dupes of duplicates, but because the printing stocks and audio reproduction of films from the early 1930s was often quite poor, New American dupes of The 39 Steps and Sabotage may have had heavy contrast and indistinct audio.
Lionsgate's The Alfred Hitchcock Box Set presents five relatively unheralded Hitchcock pictures in prints of excellent quality. The development of "The Hitchcock Touch" is easily debated in the context of these two silent films and three early talkies. Not yet "The Master of Suspense," we see Hitchcock taking on ordinary melodramas as well as murder stories, adapting the expressionist touches he admired in German pictures.
The Ring (1927) shows what separated Hitchcock from his fellow English filmmakers in the silent era. The story is a straightforward melodrama about two boxers competing for the same woman. "Round One" Jack (Carl Brisson) is a carnival prizefighter and his girlfriend Nelly (Lillian Hall-Davies) the ticket-taker; he loses his job when handsome Australian champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter, later of The Long Voyage Home) beats him. This spurs Jack to go on the circuits to win a championship of his own, but Nelly seems to prefer the company of the accomplished Bob.
How Hitchcock tells the story is everything. The Ring's visual inventions communicate points normally covered by un-cinematic inter-titles. When Bob sees Nelly from afar, his interest is illustrated by a superimposed image of her face flying toward him over the heads of the crowd. Subjective point-of-view constructions pop up frequently: we're invited to see through the eyes of the characters. A symbolic snake-like bracelet conveys the tension in the love triangle. Nelly tries to hide it but it keeps popping back to remind Jack of her interest in the other man. Distorted POV shots figure in a drunken montage sequence and express the experience of being knocked out in the ring.
As Jack's career in the ring progresses, his name rises from the bottom of fight cards to the top of the bill, a familiar motif in sports and musical bios that Hitchcock takes credit for inventing. Hitchcock felt that some of his ideas were too subtle, like the champagne bubbles that go flat as the hero realizes his girlfriend has stepped out with his rival. But most of the visuals are easy to read. Jack sees Bob's face materialize on his punching bag, and hits the bag so hard that it breaks.
Written by Hitchcock's wife and collaborator Alma Reville, The Ring plays itself out in true English fashion. The competition for both the title and the girl (who hardly seems worth the effort) is a model of good sportsmanship. Hitchcock stays in control of every aspect of this pat little story.
The Manxman (1930) is a sober melodrama with fewer inspired camera tricks, but an improved dramatic sense. Carl Brisson returns as Pete, a poor fisherman unaware that his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen), a lawyer, is also in love with Kate (Anny Ondra), the publican's irresistible daughter. Pete goes away to earn a fortune and asks Kate to wait for him. She and Philip have already begun an affair when word comes that Pete has been killed in Africa, freeing the lovers from their guilt. Pete then surfaces, safe and well. Kate marries Pete to fulfill her promise, but no easy solution is available when Kate realizes she's going to have a baby.
Hitchcock tells the story straight, focusing on the beautiful German actress Anny Ondra. Ondra addresses the camera with pixie eyes and bee-stung lips, and sometimes seems to copy the style of Brigitte Helm. Brisson is the jolly dumb fool throughout, learning the score between his best friend and his wife only at the very end. It's difficult to empathize with the illicit lovers. Kate seems a ditz and Philip shows a lack of judgment unbefitting a candidate for the job of the island's head magistrate.
Hitchcock has few opportunities to employ his cinematic experiments. When it comes time to reveal that Pete is still alive, Hitchcock simply irises in on the big lug's grinning face. Yet the director's dynamic blocking of actors, often in depth, gives strength to the drama. Kate, Pete and Philip are often positioned in patterns that immediately express the state of affairs between them.
Anny Ondra's popularity was such that Hitchcock retained her as the star of his next film, his first talkie, Blackmail. The director determined to overcome Ondra's heavy German accent by more technical sleight-of-hand. He stationed an actress off-screen to dub Ondra's lines as she spoke them, as sound editing and multi-channel dubbing hadn't yet been perfected. The trick worked, but just barely.
With 1931's Murder! we take a quantum leap ahead, noticing first that the play adaptation and screenplay were again the work of Alma Reville. The Hitchcock Touch is here in force, from humorous bits of business to clever play with technique. An actress has been accused of murder. The raising of a theatre curtain cues a vertical wipe that reveals the prisoner in her cell, as she 'imagines' her role in the play being taken by an understudy. Later, the sunset shadow of the gallows creeps up the condemned woman's chamber wall.
Murder! introduces themes consistent with later Hitchcock works. Courtrooms dispense doubtful justice, police rush to easy conclusions and a dissenting juror is pressured to conform to the will of the majority. Children represent untidy disorder in an amusing scene with Una O'Connor. Blurring the line between the theater and reality, the film presents a world of moral chaos.
Hitchcock would return time and again to the tale of the falsely accused innocent. The young actress Diana Baring (Nora Baring) is found in a compromising position at a murder scene. Diana's loss of memory keeps her from providing a convincing defense at her trial. Juror Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall, in his first talkie), himself a dean of the theater, personally investigates to uncover the real killer. As he is personally known to the accused, we wonder why Sir John has been permitted to serve on her jury. He solicits help in his investigation by the suspicious means of promising to hire two show people (Edward Chapman of Things to Come and Phyllis Konstam), knowing full well that they'll agree to whatever he says.
Hitchcock and Reville handle the delicate play between the stage world and 'reality' with great relish, encouraging both their characters and the audience to confuse the two. The details of the crime make a thematic leap decades ahead to the Italian giallos and especially the pastiche slasher movies of Brian De Palma. (spoiler) Esmé Percy plays Handel Fane, an actor specializing in cross-dressing performances, even in his second job as a circus aerialist. With hat, cane and gloves, Fane enters Sir John's study almost exactly as did Peter Lorre in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon. Fane's unspeakable secret turns out to be that he's a "half-caste", a dodge that fools nobody. Interestingly, Esmé Percy's ambivalent performance has more subtlety than the twisted lunatics in De Palma's thrillers, made in more 'enlightened' times.
Hitchcock has almost nothing to say about The Skin Game (1931) in the Francois Truffaut book. It may not be a good 'Hitchcock' movie but it's definitely a good play adaptation. A skin game is a dirty fight, in this case between families in rural England. The aristocratic Hillcrests oppose the new-money industrialist Mr. Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn), who connives to ruin the verdant meadows by constructing an ugly pottery factory right on their doorstep. Nobody screams Not In My Back Yard louder than English landed gentry; they'll do anything short of murder to circumvent Hornblower's plans.
We can understand immediately why Hitchcock would choose Gwenn as a comic villain for the later Foreign Correspondent, as his excellent performance lends credibility to this high-toned version of the Hatfields & McCoy feud. The acting elsewhere varies, with Jill Esmond and John Longden making a good impression as youngsters on opposing sides of the feud.
Edward Chapman and Phyllis Konstam repeat from Murder! Chapman's hired man for the Hillcrests is used to prove the author's point that 'people of a lower class' cannot be trusted, even after taking a solemn oath on a Bible. Ms. Konstam is Gwenn's tormented daughter-in-law. Her sordid past is used as a weapon in the struggle over property rights.
Smoothly directed, The Skin Game doesn't appear to have engaged Hitchcock mightily; he says the film was imposed on him. It may be part of the original play, but almost the only cinematic touch is to end the show with a mighty tree being felled, surely representing the spiritual end of a mighty family.
Rich and Strange (1932) is an odd story about a middle-class couple that uses an inheritance to travel around the world on vacation. Being Englishmen of their time, they mostly stare (or shout) at the 'funny' natives and show disgust for customs different from their own.
Freddy and Emily Hill (Henry Kendall & Joan Barry) say they're after adventure but have little aptitude for new experiences. Freddy suffer from seasickness. In Paris they're shocked at the Follies Bergere and can't handle their liquor; Emily's only contact with a Frenchman is when one pinches her. On the boat to Indonesia, Henry is attracted to a sultry 'Princess' (Betty Amann). Emily is wooed by Gordon (Percy Marmont), a planter. Emotional upsets and a disaster at sea eventually heal their relationship.
It is indeed a strange movie. As a satire Rich and Strange is no more organized than a series of cartoons, tied together with stock footage. Hitchcock passes the time with weak gags, as when Henry tries to set his watch to the moving hand of an elevator's floor indicator. The meaning of other visuals isn't as clear, such as a shot that emphasizes Emily and Gordon stepping over chains and ropes when they walk on deck.
Marooned on a sinking ship, the complacent couple show themselves incapable of dealing with harsh realities; it's a defeatist version of Buster Keaton's The Navigator. The cure for the marriage is both dated and unpleasant. Henry and Emily driven back into each other's arms by the danger of the shipwreck and a desire to escape the 'disgusting' Asians. Their Chinese rescuers watch one of their own drown with 'inscrutable' dispassion, and then serve up a stew of freshly killed cat. The fade-out showing the marrieds bickering once again is more depressing than funny.
Hitchcock's visual experiments aren't all comedic. He begins with an elaborately designed shot that begins on the page of an accountant's ledger and then widens to show an entire workforce leaving an office. Henry's little street is as stylized as a setting in a Jacques Tati film. Seasickness is conveyed by a POV through Henry's weaving camera viewfinder, followed by literal spots that float before his eyes. Other comedy touches have a slightly sadistic edge. Hitchcock seems to enjoy watching Emily and Henry drift into infidelity; it certainly looks as though Henry has slept with his predatory 'princess.' In one scene a sailor walks through the foreground singing a song about his wife back home. When the word 'wife' pops up in the lyrics, the sailor spits resentfully.
Hitchcock said that he wished he had bigger actors for Rich and Strange but the leads do quite well. Joan Barry is a full-fledged Hitchcock blonde with a mischievous smile and a high forehead like Madeleine Carroll. Her suitor Percy Marmont played the title role in a silent version of Lord Jim and returned in two more Hitchcock films.
Lionsgate's DVD of The Alfred Hitchcock Box Set presents attractive transfers of the five features, all of them distinct improvements on earlier public domain copies. Image damage does occur and odd cuts to black show up in a couple of the films. The early talkie soundtracks can be murky as well. The set clearly uses the best surviving elements. For some reason the main titles of The Skin Game have been vertically squeezed, resulting in a letterboxed image with squat lettering and an off-round copyright symbol.
The third disc contains a featurette entitled Pure Cinema: The Birth of The Hitchcock Style. Interview subjects Dr. Drew Casper, Peter Bogdanovich, Pat Hitchcock and others discuss Hitchcock's early career, which had as many flops as successes. Alma Reville's collaborative input is given its proper stress. Hitchcock claimed that for the shaving scene in Murder! he placed an orchestra on the set, and that Herbert Marshall's interior monologue was pre-recorded and played back. Watching the disc, we're not exactly sure how the scene was done; we hear the music, Marshall's voice and small sound effects perfectly clearly. The music continues to the next scene in Marshall's study, with full dialogue and matched cuts. It looks as if Hitchcock employed a minimum of two cameras, isolated for audio.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,