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English Hitchcock

The early career of one the world's greatest directors

Main image of English Hitchcock

In March 1939, Alfred Hitchcock, with his wife Alma Reville and daughter Patricia boarded the Queen Mary at Southampton, bound for America, where he was to become Britain's most successful film export since Charlie Chaplin (and soon hooked up with another ex-pat Englishman, Cary Grant). Unlike Chaplin and Grant, however, Hitchcock was already well-known to British audiences.

Hitchcock entered the industry in 1920 as a designer and creator of titles for Famous Players-Lassky, and continued his apprenticeship alongside Graham Cutts at Gainsborough. In 1925, studio head Michael Balcon dispatched Hitchcock to Germany, where he saw firsthand the work of masters like F.W. Murnau. It was an experience that would stay with him. Hitchcock's first two features as a director, The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Mountain Eagle (1925; sadly lost), were made in Germany, and they, like his next film, The Lodger (1926), showed the influence of German expressionism.

While The Lodger was an effective and stylish thriller, it was some time before Hitchcock settled into that genre. During the silent period, he directed melodramas (Downhill, Easy Virtue, The Ring, 1927; The Manxman, 1929) and comedies (The Farmer's Wife, Champagne, 1928), all the time growing in skill and confidence.

In 1929, British International Pictures allowed Hitchcock to shoot sound sequences for his new film, Blackmail, his second in the crime genre. But surreptitiously, the director had already shot most of the film with sound. Hailed as Britain's first full-length talkie, it was a critical and commercial success, and should have marked Hitchcock's breakthrough. But for the next few years, he struggled to find the right projects, falling back on stage adaptations which, although sometimes impressive, didn't stretch his talent.

He regained his stride with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, remade in 1955), the first of a run of films which saw him make the crime genre his own. His next film, The 39 Steps (1935), remains one of his very best films, effortlessly combining wit and suspense and drawing excellent performances from Robert Donat and Madeleine Caroll. Sabotage and The Secret Agent (both 1936) were accomplished, if uneven, thrillers with some fine set-pieces. Young and Innocent (1937) entertainingly developed the 'mismatched couple on the run' plot which was to become a Hitchcock favourite. But the peak of his British films was The Lady Vanishes (1938), a delightful comedy thriller from a clever script by Launder and Gilliatt with charismatic playing by Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. After that, his last British film, Jamaica Inn (1939), a salty melodrama adapted from Daphne du Maurier (as was his first Hollywood film, Rebecca), seemed disappointing. Mentally, he was already leaving England behind.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 39 Steps, The (1935)39 Steps, The (1935)

Classic Hitchcock thriller about spies, secrets and Scotland

Thumbnail image of Blackmail (1929)Blackmail (1929)

Hitchcock thriller that was the first feature-length British sound film

Thumbnail image of Jamaica Inn (1939)Jamaica Inn (1939)

Hitchcock's last pre-Hollywood film, a tale of Cornish smugglers

Thumbnail image of Lady Vanishes, The (1938)Lady Vanishes, The (1938)

Glorious comic thriller about a mysteriously disappearing old woman

Thumbnail image of Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog (1926)Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

Hitchcock's first thriller: a lodger is suspected of murder

Thumbnail image of Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)Man Who Knew Too Much, The (1934)

The original version of Hitchcock's classic man-on-the-run thriller

Thumbnail image of Sabotage (1936)Sabotage (1936)

Dark reworking of Conrad's 'The Secret Agent'

Thumbnail image of Secret Agent (1936)Secret Agent (1936)

Hitchcock thriller starring a young John Gielgud

Thumbnail image of Young and Innocent (1937)Young and Innocent (1937)

Hitchcock thriller about an innocent man suspected of murder

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