Hitchcock’s Deep Cuts: Before he got his master’s in suspense

By Stacey Harrison and Karl J. Paloucek

Anyone looking to take a shot at the Academy Awards’ credibility will always be able to point to the criminal oversight of director Alfred Hitchcock, who, despite making some of the most artfully thrilling, enduring films of all time, never won an Academy Award, having received five nominations in his more than 50 years of filmmaking. (No, we’re not counting the Irving G. Thalberg — we suspect he didn’t, either.) You know the films that have become synonymous with his name and reputation: Rear Window. Vertigo. North by Northwest. Psycho. The Birds. And so many more, which are often found on TV this time of year. In his lifetime, the Master of Suspense helmed some roughly 60 films. And as well as we know so many of them, very few of us know all or even most of them.

Many of his early works — like the Vaudevillian Elstree Calling or the short An Elastic Affair— are largely unseen, while others, like 1935’s The 39 Steps, are lesser classics with cult followings. But sprinkled throughout Hitch’s oeuvre are a number of titles that remain underappreciated, a few that are troubled, as well as one or two that are just better left unmentioned.

Easy Virtue (1928)

A cautionary tale from Hitchcock’s silent era, this rather clumsy story hinges on the troubled morals of a woman who goes through a scandalous, spectacular divorce only to find herself having to hide her past when she eventually finds love. Definitely of its time, it comes off as a didactic story that hints at some of the more propagandistic films the director would make during the war years.

The Manxman (1929)

While the title sounds like it could be a bit naughty, it’s actually just a term for a guy who hails from the Isle of Man. No, The Manxman is actually an at times sweet, albeit heavily melodramatic love story that makes good use of the silent-movie medium. It allows the characters’ exaggerated expressions tell most of the story as opposed to an onslaught of tedious title cards. I’m not always equipped to sit through silent films, but I found myself quite caught up in the love triangle that starts when two lifelong friends — one a common fisherman, the other a reluctant blueblood — find themselves attracted to the same local lass.

Blackmail (1929)

Filmed both as a silent and as a “talkie,” Blackmail tells a compelling story about a woman whose plan to ditch her bobby boyfriend for another man backfires. When the stranger tries to take advantage of her, she slips a knife into him and is later blackmailed for the killing. One of the more skilled of Hitchcock’s early films, featuring at least a few instances of what would become his trademark gallows humor, Blackmail’s primary problem is that it takes a full hour to set up the titular circumstance. The suspense builds rapidly from there, building through a memorable chase through the British Museum to a rather unusual morally ambiguous ending, but the sudden buildup after so much setup shows that Hitchcock still hadn’t quite mastered pacing at this stage.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)

For Hitchcock completists only, this is essentially a film staged play about a family during the Irish Revolution that suddenly comes into a big inheritance, only to find it brings far more trouble than joy. No real recognizable Hitchcock touches here, and the script (based on the Sean O’Casey play) goes from light and airy to dark and melodramatic by the end. It was released in some parts as The Shame of Mary Boyle, reflecting the illegitimate-pregnancy subplot. A similar money-can’t-buy-happiness story was explored in 1931’s Rich and Strange.

Murder! (1930)

Can’t get much quicker to the point than this title, eh? It even includes a helpful exclamation point, just to drive the homicidal point home. A nice tracking shot opens up this playful whodunit about a juror who has second thoughts about the guilty verdict he passed down on a seemingly lovely young lady. He decides to conduct his own investigation, hoping to find the truth before the execution. The highlight is a wonderfully clever setpiece in which the police attempt to conduct interrogations with a bunch of witnesses — actors in a play — who are entering and exiting the stage between questions. Nowhere near Hitch’s best, but a nice warm-up for things to come.

Number 17 (1932)

Something of an essay in suspense filmmaking, this effort features a number of hallmarks that appear in numerous more famous Hitchcock projects: rapid continuity editing; concealed identity and people clambering about on the outside of fast-moving trains. Much of it actually is very impressive for its time, but it lacks the crucial character development to draw in its audience as The 39 Steps would just a few years later.

Strauss’ Great Waltz (1934)

By 1934, Hitchcock had already established his interest in directing thrillers, but he was still a way off from being able to call all of his own shots with regard to what projects he took. Once in a while, he still had to direct a film that he’d been asked to do and in which he wasn’t particularly interested. This musical comedy based on a play about the relationship between Johann Strauss the elder and his son, Johann Strauss Jr., who would become the Waltz King of Europe in his day, may be watchable, but like Rich and Strange, it shows Hitchcock assuming a role behind the camera that he was loathe to play.

Sabotage (1936)

No, this isn’t the one that has the famous climactic fight on the Statue of Liberty. That’s 1942’s Saboteur. This crackling yarn is spun from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (yes, kids, he did write something besides Heart of Darkness) and features the great Sylvia Sidney in a tale about a cinema-owner who works with terrorists to planting a bomb in London. At a crackling 88 minutes, this is a great, almost literal, example of Hitch’s “bomb under the table” theory, where you build suspense not by keeping secrets from the audience, but letting them know what’s happening, and making them suffer as the character finally figures it out.

The Secret Agent (1936)

Hitchcock really had a thing for the words “secret agent” back in 1936. Having nothing to do with the Joseph Conrad novel, this nifty World War I caper is an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories about a British novelist consigned by the Intelligence Service to kill a German agent. Aside from the rapid-fire dialogue and engrossing plot, this frequently funny picture contains a charming romantic storyline and treats you to Peter Lorre hamming it up with a silly French accent. Best of all, it supplies photographic evidence that John Gielgud was once a young man — a dashing one at that.

Jamaica Inn (1939)

Charles Laughton dominates as a pompous, corrupt justice in a seaside county of England in this period piece based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. Under the justice’s covert direction, a band of marauding cutthroats despoils ships that he has arranged to be wrecked on the coast. Also starring Maureen O’Hara as the heroine, this largely unsung swashbuckler finds its director firmly at the helm. Roiling seas undulate along with the plot, much as they would in Rebecca, the film that really brought Hitchcock into his own, which was released a mere six months later, and likely the reason that this lesser work was so soon forgotten.

Spellbound (1945)

Famous for its compelling turns as well as its memorable pairing of Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, not to mention the surreal dream sequence designed by surrealist Salvador Dali, this film falters if only because of its rather primitive understanding and ham-fisted use of psychology as a major plot device. Hitchcock isn’t altogether to blame, as the film is based on a novel that was written years earlier, and both the film and story date from a time much closer to psychology’s infancy. But Hitchcock exhibited a fascination with the possibilities of the science of the mind, as demonstrated in films like Rope (1948), Psycho (1960), Marnie (1964) and Frenzy (1972).

Under Capricorn (1949)

It’s not often seen, but it is still in print — probably because of the presence of names like Joseph Cotten and, again, Ingrid Bergman. Hitchcock occasionally veered outside his usual parameters to tell a different sort of story, with varying results. This was one of his most disastrous attempts. In spite of the pedigreed billing and the Helen Simpson book (the Australian novelist Simpson also penned several other titles which became Hitchcock films, including Murder! and Mary), this 19th-century drama about a young man who stumbles into a love triangle while trying to seek his fortune in Australia clocks in at just under two hours … but to sit through it, you’d swear it was twice that long.

Film is a tricky medium, and even the most gifted of directors will turn in a lemon now and again. Hitchcock’s legacy may rest on the films for which he’s best known, but it was a long and varied career that led up to them, rich with minor victories, almost-theres and the occasional outright disaster. As you watch these early efforts — and the more closely you watch them — you start to see the emergence of the Hitchcock style, with its dark, dry wit and almost fanatical attention to detail. You see the contrast from his British period to the Hollywood years, when he really learned how to wield his sharp leading men and glamorous leading ladies. And most of all, you come to appreciate the total picture of a brilliant career that in its time could manage to scare our socks off, but somehow never received the total appreciation it was due.