The Los Angeles County Museum commences a veritable cinematic feast this weekend titled simply “Hitchcock: The British Thrillers,” beginning with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), followed by Murder! (1930), Sabotage (1936), The Secret Agent (1936), The 39 Steps (1935), Number 17 (1932), The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Young and Innocent (1937).
Throughout the ’30s, Hitchcock (1899-1980) adapted masterfully to convulsive upheavals in both his medium (the onslaught of the talkies over the corpses of the silent movies) and in society as a whole (the financial crisis and the rise of fascism in Europe). Yet, though both Murder! and Number 17 were both respectably entertaining thrillers, Hitchcock did not hit his stride until The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best as the parents of a child (played by Nova Pilbeam) kidnapped by an international band of assassins (led by Peter Lorre, fresh from his triumph in Fritz Lang’s pedophilic crime sensation, M). The reason for the kidnapping is to prevent the child’s father from reporting a message imparted to him by a dying French spy (Pierre Fresnay). Before the parents are reunited with their child, all London is mesmerized by a bloody shoot-out between the gang and the police.
Hitchcock’s next film, The 39 Steps, was released in America in 1935, before The Man Who Knew Too Much, and was an even greater success around the world. Robert Donat plays the first of many Hitchcock heroes in flight from both the villains and the police for crimes he did not commit. Hitchcock’s ambivalent attitude toward the police was frequently attributed to a childhood incident in which his mother punished him by sending him to the local station with a note asking that he be locked in a jail cell. Madeleine Carroll plays the hero’s cranky lady companion, the first of many of the director’s manipulatively blonde temptresses.
Less successful than his two breakthrough hits were the two spy melodramas that followed: curiously and confusingly, whereas The Secret Agent is actually based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories, Sabotage is a softened version of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Lorre, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors, reappears in The Secret Agent as the hero’s malignant intelligence partner on a mission to Switzerland to dispose of an enemy agent. Naturally, they kill the wrong man. Robert Young plays against type as the breezy villain flirting shamelessly with the hero’s girlfriend (Carroll). The illustrious stage actor John Gielgud is the hero, and he stated in a ’50s interview that Hitchcock never liked him much, in accordance with the director’s prejudice against stage luminaries, who could, as a tribe, do only one thing at a time — unlike a movie “natural” like Lorre, with his quick-change expressions and gestures. (Gielgud sounded more amused than angry with the director, it must be noted.)
In Sabotage, Sylvia Sidney plays an American woman who has married a middle-aged movie-theater owner (Oscar Homolka) in order to help care for her feeble-minded younger brother (Desmond Tester). The film’s pièce de résistance is a tense, minute-by-minute trip of a time bomb into a crowded bus, after which the truly unforeseen occurs. C.L. Lejeune, the eminent film critic of the London Observer, angrily cautioned Hitchcock never to do that again; opinions vary as to whether he followed her advice.
Before Hitchcock ascended another peak of critical and popular acclaim with The Lady Vanishes, he suffered something of a setback with Young and Innocent, released in America as The Girl Was Young. Its female lead is played by a somewhat grown-up Pilbeam, a constable’s daughter who becomes involved with a randy but attractive older man (Derrick De Marney) who is fleeing a murder trial at which he is the only suspect. I consider this perhaps the most underrated of all Hitchcock’s works, particularly for its climax in a crowded dance hall in which the director’s camera runs wild with a visual echo from the first images of the film. If you’ve never seen it, don’t miss it.
By contrast, the resounding triumph of The Lady Vanishes was at least partly the result of a fruitful collaboration with writers Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, a team that went on to write Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich (1940) and their own Green for Danger (1947). In Lady, Margaret Lockwood plays a young engaged woman on her way from Switzerland to be married in London. When an older woman (Dame May Whitty) who has befriended her mysteriously disappears, a problem arises for our heroine: No one else on the train admits to having seen the older woman. Michael Redgrave plays the gallant knight who eventually believes the young woman, and Paul Lukas serves as the suave villain. The time is 1938, the year British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier caved in to Adolph Hitler, thereby setting the stage for World War II. One of the characters in the film, played by Cecil Parker, is a self-described appeaser when the showdown comes with the Central European villains who had abducted the older woman.
Yet it would be a mistake to designate Hitchcock as a particularly programmatic director in the sociopolitical sphere. His films are never lacking in humor or a self-mocking instinct, attuned to the sensibility of a wry Londoner recoiling from a traumatic Jesuit education. Two of Lady’s most memorable characters are a couple of feckless sports fans played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford; in England’s darkest hour, all they can think of is their nation’s imperiled state on the cricket field.
HITCHCOCK: THE BRITISH THRILLERS | LACMA Bing Theater | Through Sat., Nov. 28 | lacma.org/film