In the early part of his career, Alfred Hitchcock was widely considered to be Britain's best film director. Silent films such as The Lodger (1926), The Ring (1927) and The Farmer's Wife (1928) were greeted with great enthusiasm by critics, and, at a time of expansion and increasing optimism for the British film industry, they were heralded as evidence that British films had reached an international standard of artistry. In 1929, Blackmail was hailed by British critics as a film which used sound and dialogue with more flair and imagination than any Hollywood or European film of the time. And in the mid-1930s, Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) reinvigorated the thriller genre with their fast pace and distinctively British sense of wit and irony.
Hitchcock was thus an admired and prominent figure in British film culture, so much so that a newspaper report on the premiere of The 39 Steps in 1935 could affectionately refer to him as 'the Buddha of British films'. In the wake of his departure for Hollywood in 1939, however, his centrality within British film culture quickly waned.
After the outbreak of the Second World War he was one of those accused in the British press as having 'gone with the wind up' to Hollywood. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, British critics favoured realism above all else, and they looked with disdain upon the Hollywood glamour and opulence that characterises much of Hitchcock's work during this time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when auteurist critics celebrated Hitchcock's films, it was mainly the Hollywood Hitchcock that they admired, and these (largely American and French) critics had little interest in his British films. Of course Hitchcock's public persona in his later years was still very closely associated with his English background, as his appearances on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television programmes demonstrate. But his dark suits, careful formality, deadpan irony and macabre humour seemed to be the contrivances of a long time expatriate.
It can be surprising, then, to discover the esteem that Hitchcock enjoyed in his native country during his first dozen years as a director. When The Lodger was first shown in 1926, it was declared to be a masterpiece and its director was proclaimed as a youthful genius. Hitchcock was already twenty-seven years old at the time, but his rise does seem to have been remarkable.
He had been born on the eastern edge of London, in Leytonstone, Essex, on 13 August 1899, and his family lived above their greengrocers shop on Leytonstone High Road and later in the East End neighbourhoods of Poplar and Stepney. He left school at the age of fourteen, and worked as a clerk at the Henley Telegraph Company and took evening lessons in draughtsmanship and drawing at the University of London. In 1919, these skills enabled him to get a job as a title card designer with the American production company Famous Players-Lasky when it began making films in a converted power station in Islington.
The Americans did not stay long in Islington, but Hitchcock's ascent quickened when the studio was taken over by Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures in 1924. Balcon allowed Hitchcock to work at an array of jobs for Gainsborough: as a set designer, scenario writer, editor and as the assistant director to Graham Cutts, who was then Gainsborough's top director.
In 1925, Hitchcock was given his own directorial assignments with The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, both of which were filmed in Munich's Emelka Studios as part of a co-production deal between Gainsborough and the German producer Erich Pommer. Neither film garnered much attention, and it was not until the release of his third film, The Lodger, that both the critics and the public took notice of Hitchcock.
Indeed, The Lodger seemed able to please just about everyone. With filmic techniques informed by the international art cinema of the 1920s, an Oedipal narrative format borrowed from Hollywood, and subject matter that was distinctly English (a Jack the Ripper story with authentic London settings), it remains a remarkable hybrid and a stunning example of late silent cinema. The Lodger also introduced several of Hitchcock's most enduring story elements: a protagonist whose innocence is in doubt, a romance filled with suspicion and mistrust, wry humour and a murderous fascination with blondes, to name but a few, that would endure for many years.
His reputation as the 'master of suspense' was far in the future, however, and during these early years Hitchcock was known primarily for the visual creativity of his films. The German director F.W. Murnau was a strong influence in this regard. While filming in Germany in 1924, Hitchcock visited the set of Der Letze Mann (The Last Laugh, Germany, 1924) and observed Murnau at work. It was a key moment in his development as a filmmaker. Murnau's interest in an 'unchained' camera and his pursuit of 'pure cinema' (telling the story in visual terms alone) would be lifelong interests of Hitchcock's too. He was also a member of the London Film Society, and its screenings of French, German and Soviet art films, as well as early and pioneering American films, provided a unique forum for the consideration of film form and technique, and one that influenced Hitchcock and many other aspiring British filmmakers of the time.
One can point further to Hitchcock's interest in drawing and draughtsmanship as factors that enriched and informed the visual dynamic of his films. In his silent films, this was so striking that critics regularly cited 'the Hitchcock touch', referring to the visually dramatic sequences that distinguished his work. Such moments might convey an amusing, sinister or romantic story point, or they might dramatise a thematic element of the story, but they always demonstrated the director's ability to tell the story without recourse to intertitles for dialogue or explanation.
Perhaps the most striking example is the use of a glass ceiling in The Lodger, enabling the cinema audience to see what the characters 'hear': their lodger pacing back and forth in the room above them. In Downhill (1926) there is a recurrent visual motif of descent; in The Ring a boxer's career progress is demonstrated through his improved billing on a succession of posters and billboards; and in Easy Virtue (1927) the audience is able to 'listen' to a marriage proposal over the telephone by watching the facial expressions of an eavesdropping switchboard operator. These techniques were particularly useful and even liberating narrative devices, given that in these years most of Hitchcock's stories were adaptations of stage plays and the witty dialogue of West End favourites such as Noël Coward could not be transferred directly to the silent screen.
In 1927 Hitchcock left Gainsborough for the larger British International Pictures (BIP), and his new contract made him the highest paid director in Britain. Being assigned to direct BIP's first talking film was another sign of his status, and Blackmail proved that such regard was fully deserved. At the time, many cinephiles thought that 'talkies' would reduce cinema to being only 'pictures of people talking' but Hitchcock's inventive and expressionist use of sound demonstrated that the new technology actually opened a new realm of possibilities.
In the wake of Blackmail, it appears that the search for new challenges was not entirely fruitful or fulfilling. There were further adaptations of high profile West End plays (Juno and the Paycock (1929), The Skin Game (1931)), two more thrillers (Murder! (1930), Number Seventeen (1932)) and an intriguingly odd marital drama (appropriately named Rich and Strange). Hitchcock also tried producing films (Lord Camber's Ladies (d. Benn W. Levy, 1932)) and, after leaving British International, he even directed a musical operetta (Waltzes from Vienna (1933)). Yet none of these projects was wholly successful, and it is apparent that his career had lost some of its steam, both commercially and critically, during this period. Then a remarkable reversal of fortune was achieved when Hitchcock's old mentor, Michael Balcon, invited him to join Gaumont-British in 1934.
Balcon was now the executive producer at this ambitious company, and he gave Hitchcock his choice of film projects, the freedom to develop his films without interference and his choice of collaborators. Hitchcock chose to return to the thriller genre, and to work with Charles Bennett (the author of Blackmail) on an original screenplay that became The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
This proved to be the first of several witty, suspense-filled and highly popular thrillers that continued with The 39 Steps, The Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes. Like Blackmail, these 1930s thrillers often progress from the depiction of private, hidden and repressed impulses to much more public displays of unleashed fear and violence in very public and well known venues (such as the Royal Albert Hall and the London Palladium).
By contrast with Blackmail, though, the 1930s thrillers seem more politically aware and attuned to their times. All except Young and Innocent are centred on espionage, and they convey a strong sense of political complacency, instability and an impending threat from abroad. In reviving this genre, Hitchcock had also found the means of circumventing Britain's strict system of censorship, which insisted that films should be escapist entertainment and not engage with topical or controversial issues.
Many have said that Hitchcock found his true calling with the 1930s thrillers, while for others this concentration on one genre represents a limiting of Hitchcock's talent and interests. Either way, their popularity ensured that he was invited to Hollywood, and in 1939 he took up a contract with the producer David O. Selznick.
This opportunity must have been an irresistible one. In the late 1930s, the British film industry had become mired in a financial crisis, and its difficulties would only intensify with the outbreak of war. It must have been all the more galling, for those eager to criticise him, that he was able to go to Hollywood and yet continue to work on British stories and with largely British casts in films such as Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Yet it is evident that Hitchcock was eager to maintain ties with Britain. He returned in wartime to make two short films for the Ministry of Information, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache (both 1944).
In the immediate post-war period, he and the Granada cinema chain owner Sidney Bernstein formed a production company, Transatlantic Pictures, that was designed to enable him to make films in Britain, and to free him from the interference of Hollywood producers such as Selznick. Of the company's two films, Rope (1948) and Under Capricorn (1949), only the latter was filmed in Britain, and although both are remembered for their bold experimentation with long takes and deep focus, neither was a popular success. Transatlantic soon folded, and Hitchcock subsequently worked with a range of Hollywood studios.
He made only two further films in Britain. The first, Stage Fright (1950), was a thriller set in the West End theatre world that had enthralled him in his youth, but the film's sense of time and place is weakened by its international cast and its curiously limited use of location shooting. The second, Frenzy (1972), seems to hit much closer to home and can be seen to represent a remake or an updating of The Lodger. The story is centred on a man wrongly accused of being a sadistic serial killer of women, and it was filmed with a largely British cast and in a London setting that benefits from extensive location shooting around the old Covent Garden market. Frenzy was not Hitchcock's last film, but it can be seen as a revisiting of his career's dramatic beginnings in Britain and as a homecoming for a director who found his greatest success and celebrity abroad.
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