Production: Gaumont-British; Producer: Michael Balcon; Screenplay and Adaptation: Charles Bennett and Alma Reville from the novel by John Buchan; Principal Actors: Madeleine Carroll, Robert Donat, Lucie Mannheim and Godfrey Tearle
The 39 Steps was based on the John Buchan novel, written in 1915. Hitchcock freely adapted and changed the premise of the novel that very little of the original plot remained. Buchan, who was also the British Governor General in Canada at that time, was initially upset; but, after he saw the final product, he admitted that the film was much better than his novel.
This was the first time that Hitchcock used the now often-repeated theme of sympathy for the man unjustly framed and on the run, all the while attempting to clear his besmirched name and find the real culprit. Hitchcock also used the techniques of combining two scenes unrelated visually but by sound. The director relied more on action than words -- the romantic banter is light and only used when essential. Hitchcock admitted that his aim was create talkie like a silent film.
The story of the film revolves around the character of Richard Hannay who escapes from his London flat when he discovers that a woman to whom he has given refuge to is murdered. The same killers are now after him; he flees to Scotland to the home of Professor Jordan following a clue he finds near the murdered woman; that the leader of the spy ring has a missing finger on the right hand. He does not realize that the Professor is the leader of the ring of spies responsible for the murder. Somehow, he escapes with his life through the Scottish Moors along with a woman he meets on the train. Spies masquerading as police handcuff him to the woman. Once again they escape following clues until they meet a Mr. Memory whom the spies use to transmit government secrets. Mr. Memory is shot and the spies' plans are foiled. Hannay is cleared and gets the girl -- Pamela. The plot is weak, but the visual suspense that Hitchcock instills during the chase scenes carries the film. Hitchcock used the techniques of quick movement from one scene to another. One might also credit the Editor Derek Twist for these effects. One such example is: Hannay leaps out of the window of the police station with half a handcuff, and immediately walks through a Salvation Army band, darting into an alleyway. The techniques of editing and quick location changes created in the audience a palpable sense of urgency.
The film was enthusiastically greeted in America and England. The New York Times reported: "A master of shock and suspense... There is a subtle feeling in menace in Mr. Hitchcock's low-slung angled use of camera." One of these scenes is when the landlady screams with horror on finding the dead woman in Hannay's flat. This scream is then interspersed with the shriek of the whistle of the train that Hannay escapes in.
The 39 steps was remade in color in 1960 with Kenneth More replacing Robert Donat and Tania Elg substituting for Madeleine Caroll. Director Ralph Thomas however, despite the advantage of using color to show the lush landscape of the Scottish moors, does not match the impact of the black-and-white effort of Alfred Hitchcock.
Saboteur - 1942
Production: Universal; Producer: Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball; Screenplay: Peter Vierte, Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker from an original subject by Alfred Hitchcock; Principal Actors: Robert Cummings, Priscilla Lane and Otto Kruger
Saboteur, produced during the Second World War was Hitchcock's paean to American patriotism. It had a recurring theme "Buy War Bonds," but the plot went beyond mere propaganda. The cinematography was unique -- actors were shot using a telephoto lens from almost a mile to a mile and a half away. The idea was to show the vastness of America. "Its what strikes the eye that leaves the most impression in the movie-goer's eye," according to Hitchcock. Another distinctive factor of the movie was the introduction the wry, dry wit of Dorothy Parker into the gravitas of the movie's subject. The movie was also subtitled as "The Man Behind Your Back," in order to bring the idea of distrust in the time of War home. An Otto Kruger quote: "The world's choosing sides, and I know what side I am on."
The plot of Saboteur is about an aircraft mechanic Barry Kane false accused of sabotaging an aircraft plant at which he works. Kane narrowly escapes a police dragnet and heads to a ranch to find Frank Fry -- the saboteur, and only one who can clear his name. He meets the insidious and untrustworthy Otto Kruger, escapes again and takes refuge with a blind man and his niece (Patricia). The niece initially wants to turn him in, but later relents -- believing his innocence. Barry and Patricia, on the run, are offered refuge by some circus performers and eventually reach a mining town saloon. They discover that the saboteurs would meet there. Barry pretends to be a saboteur while Pat goes to the police. Much to Pat's dismay she discovers that the police are also hand-in-glove with the saboteurs. When the police arrest Kane, he tells Pat to follow Fry. This, after Kane manages to prevent a new Navy ship from being blown up by spies. The finale occurs at the Statue of Liberty. There was a scene of an innovative and spectacular shootout at Radio City Music Hall. Not only was this film sequence original, it was made all the more special because most of Hitchcock's films premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
The Navy was not happy with the film because some footage of a capsized ship was also filmed as part of the set. The Navy concluded that the capsized ship "Normandie" would be perceived as the work of saboteurs. As a wartime film, Saboteur was the forerunner of the more famous "North by Northwest."
The Navy forced Hitchcock to edit some of the scenes from the film.
While the actors gave competent performances, Hitchcock seemed to think that the leading actors were miscast: Robert Cummings had a funny face and would not be able to portray the seriousness of the situation; Priscilla Lane not Hitchcock's first choice, had to be included because of her contract with Universal Studios; while she was a good actress, Hitchcock believed that she had the girl-next-door look as opposed to the sophisticate that Hitchcock wanted to portray. Otto Kruger provided just the right villainic touch.
The movie was not considered to be Hitchcock's best work by the critics. The exception was Dorothy Parker's dialogue which includes putting the bearded lady's beard curlers; or when one of the Siamese twins who complains of insomnia and tosses and turns all night. The black-and-white cinematography appropriately distinguishes between the good vs. bad guys. It still remains an absorbing movie. It is a good example of Hollywood's escapism.
Shadow of a Doubt - 1943
Production: Universal; Producer: Jack Skirball; Screenplay: Thornton Wilder, Alma Reville and Sally Benson from a story by Gordon McDonnell; Principal Actors: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, MacDonald Carey and Patricia Collinge
Though Shadow of a Doubt did not receive the publicity of other Hitchcock's movies, it remains a gem -- a taut thriller that was well scripted and well characterized. The audience in this film was already aware of the real killer, but rooted for him -- the anti-hero. The plot depicts profundity in simplicity. Charles Cokley comes to Santa Rosa, California, to visit his sister's family to elude two detectives on his trail. The family: Cokley's sister, her husband and daughter "Charlie" accommodate him. However, through a series of events, Charlie comes to realize that perhaps her uncle is the serial killer who has earned the nickname "The Merry Widow Killer."
At some point in the film, a chopped up body is discovered that people suppose is the real killer. Cokley is relaxed and relieved. But he realizes that his niece Charlie suspects him anyway. He attempts to kill her three times and each time, she survives. At the film's finale, he attempts to throw her onto the rail tracks in the path of a train; yet, fate intervenes and the killer is killed himself.
Shadow of a Doubt involves realistic settings, and unlike cut and dried thrillers where according to Hitchcock, the characters are like cardboard cutouts, in Shadow... The characters are probed and analyzed and subtle nuances were brought home to the audience. The audience could relate to the scenes and characters in the film. Any real action -- the typical fare people had come to expect from Hitchcock -- only takes place at the end of the film. Several non-professionals were used in the film. One of them with a prominent role was the daughter of a grocer in Santa Rosa -- the town for the setting for the story.