Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Early Hitchcock: The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes

Well, I was kind of hoping that this Sunday night double-feature would be a Sunday afternoon one, but someone went and booked the theater for a wedding. The nerve!

As always, it's great to see these in 35mm, a reminder of how much I love Hitchcock, with The 39 Steps a particular favorite. It's always somewhat surprising to me - although it shouldn't be - just how funny Hitchcock is. Both The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are easily categorized as comedies as well as thrillers - the former inspired a Broadway musical comedy, the latter spun two comedic characters off - and in some way they represent Hitchcock at the peak of his powers.

He would later do many great movies in America, but one thing that really pleased me with these two is how good the endings are; a lot of Hitch's finales tend to leave something to be desired (I mean, really, that's how you end The Birds?). These don't have jaw-dropping endings or anything, but a simple bit of hand-holding at the end of one feels warmer than many more passionate displays, and The Lady Vanishes, for as weak as its opening is, puts on a clinic in how to unravel a mystery without drowning the audience in exposition or hitting them with flashbacks to what they missed.

Anyway, great movies. I see Criterion is finally porting The 39 Steps to Blu-ray, which is much welcome, but even though I have one of these on the shelf and will have the other in a few months, it's always a great thrill to see them with a good crowd, and Hitchcock brings out an event better crowd at the Brattle than Bogart.

The 39 Steps

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Hitchcock Weekend, 35mm)

The 39 Steps is by no means the first "falsely accused man on the run" thriller, but it is certainly a template for many that came afterwards - the fortuitously-timed parade in The Fugitive, for instance, is lifted directly from this picture. It remains a delight, in large part because Alfred Hitchcock and company recognize and anticipate what would become drab or rote, evading cliché as their protagonists evade the law.

Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is nobody special, but when shots ring out at a music-hall show one night, he finds himself taking a most unusual girl home. Miss Smith (Lucie Mannheim) - though she readily admits to having many names - claims to be a freelance agent being pursued by a pair of killers. It proves true, and Hannay follows the clues she left to Scotland, with the police rapidly catching up and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), the girl he meets on the train, in no mood to help him.

At one point, the pair are famously manacled to one another, and while that sequence may be what the movie is most remembered for, it actually lasts only twenty minutes, with the filmmakers casting it aside once they feel they've done enough with it. Indeed, it's cast away almost carelessly, in perhaps the most obvious example of just how loose Hitchcock and screenwriters Charles Bennett and Ian Hay opt to play things. There's seldom a moment when the audience will that things couldn't happen that way, just that sometimes things seem a little more sloppy than playful.

Full review at EFC.

The Lady Vanishes

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 March 2012 in the Brattle Theatre (Hitchcock Weekend, 35mm)

1941's Mr. & Mrs. Smith is generally considered Alfred Hitchcock's only pure comedy. I'd include The Trouble with Harry, myself, but The Lady Vanishes is pretty close to the romantic comedy category itself, especially during its best parts.

An avalanche has a number of vacationers taking the same train from the tiny country of Bandrika to London: Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), an heiress about to marry; Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess about to retire; would-be musical historian Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), whose late-night research on Bandrikan folk dance had Iris calling the hotel management the night before; a couple who are married, but, inconveniently, not to each other (Cecil Parker & Linden Travers); and a pair of Englishmen trying to make it home before the test match finishes (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford). Something odd happens, though - Iris awakens from a nap to find Miss Froy gone, and nobody on the train willing to say they saw her. A traveling neurologist, Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), points out that a planter fell on Iris's head earlier, and vivid hallucinations are frequently associated with the resultant concussion. Iris is certain, though, and Gilbert decides to tag along.

The Lady Vanishes takes a relatively long time to get started; the filmmakers aim to introduce the bulk of the characters before loading them on the train. So there's a protracted meet-cute with Iris and Gilbert, and a great deal of comic relief with Wayne & Radford's hapless tourists well before the movie has any actual tension to relieve. The cast gets even bigger once they've boarded the train, large enough that even if Hitchcock and writers Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (adapting a story by Ethel Lina White) wanted to play things as ambiguous for a while, it would be very difficult practically; the story seems to rely on things being set up just so as it is.

Full review at EFC.

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