Alfred Hitchcock should have been selling cabbages. But, no... At just 27, the greengrocer’s son was already Britain’s finest director. Wedged between his breakthrough box-office smash The Lodger (1926) and the mould-setting mid to late-’30s trio of The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, this fascinating nine-disc snapshot of his Brit period tracks a genius in genesis. Masterpieces? Barely. But massively influential – for Hitch and for cinema.
Film was an infant art form in Britain when Hitchcock made The Ring (1927), a love triangle between two boxers and a beautiful ticket-seller that sees the director test-driving the visual storytelling he’d learned first-hand from German master FW Murnau. He called Murnau’s The Last Laugh “pure cinema”, but referred to his own flimsy Champagne (1928) as “the lowest ebb of my output”, and, as Hitchcockian New Waver Claude Chabrol helpfully notes on the boxset’s 52-minute documentary, The Farmer’s Wife (1928) isn’t “very good”. Along with Chabrol’s fond insights, the doc packs audio recordings of Hitchcock’s conversations with fanboy François Truffaut – and there are expert intros on each disc.
The DVD also includes a delicious piece of footage showing a smitten Hitch (with hair!) saucily screen-testing a coquettish young actress. “Stand in your place or it won’t come out right,” he smiles. “As the girl said to the soldier...” Anny Ondra duly became Hitch’s first blonde bombshell, the fat man starting to find his mojo on love-triangle drama The Manxman (1929), a silent triumph that sits beside The Lodger and Blackmail (1929) as one of the most groundbreaking thrillers in Brit cinema history. “There was one thing missing from the silent pictures,” said Hitch, thoughtfully. “And that was sound.”
Sex and violence hit boiling point in Blackmail, as Hitchcock seized the medium. Sound became psychology: at one point Hitchcock’s distorted audio-track rattles the word “Knife!” in the murderer’s tormented mind. The experimentation continued with Murder! (1930): a three-minute take, overlapping dialogue and more inventive use of music. Murder!’s transvestite trapeze artist also debuts Hitch’s run of sexually ambiguous villains.
Two terrific films then, but his Brit CV (and this boxset) boasts its duffers. “I didn’t make it by choice,” Hitchcock told Truffaut of The Skin Game (1931), “and there isn’t much to be said about it.” Nor is there much to say about Number Seventeen (1932), Hitch’s “quota quickie” whose spaghetti plotline (hobo discovers corpse in abandoned house) twists around an early MacGuffin (a stolen necklace). The director’s wife-cum-collaborator Alma Reville helped ink the screenplay, evolved through late-night writing sessions juiced by Hitch’s favourite cocktail: the White Lady (gin, egg whites, light cream, superfine sugar).
Marrying him in the same year he made The Lodger, Reville worked (often uncredited) with hubby on every one of his films, and the boxset ends on their most intriguing early work, Rich And Strange (1932), about a childless couple frolicking on a cruise-liner. It wriggles with another classic Hitchcockian trait: playful humour masking grave tragedy.
“It’s very rich,” chuckles Chabrol. “And very strange...”