Catching Hitch

I don’t usually plug stuff here, but there’s always an exception and I’m going to make it in the case of “Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock” which is on BBC4 tonight at 9pm (and repeated many times thereafter) as part of a short Hitchcock season on the channel.

I really love Paul Merton’s work (he’s terrific in “Just a Minute” on Radio 4 and “Have I Got News For You” on BBC1) and finding out he’s an ardent fan of Alfred Hitchcock, who is undoubtedly my own personal favourite director of all time, is just the icing on the cake. If you’re a fan of Hitchcock, you’ll need no more encouragement to catch the programme; and if you’re not, then you should definitely catch the programme and some of Hitchcock’s films being shown on BBC4 to find out what you’ve been missing.

Merton’s programme seems to be concentrating on Hitch’s early years in Britain as an up and coming star of the new medium of cinema, before he packed up and headed for Hollywood. And it’s important to understand that this is just one of several Hitchcocks, and that because you may have seen one of his films like “Psycho”, you’ve only seen one small slice of what “Hitchcockian” means.

In fact, “Psycho” is especially atypical for the director: it was an experiment, shot quickly with a scratch crew from his successful TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. Hitch called it a “shocker” to differentiate it from his real films, and while it contains a lot of his trademark touches here and there, it’s also very different from virtually all his other films.

There’s the British talkie era, for example, which produced stone-cold classics like “The Lady Vanishes” (also on BBC4 tonight, at 7.30) and “The 39 Steps” (tomorrow at 11pm), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Young and Innocent”, a charming personal favourite of mine. You have to be a fan of 30s films – black and white, scratchy, slow-paced by modern standards – but if you come to them with even half an open mind then they should charm and beguile you just as effectively today as they would have done 75 years ago.

There’s the British silent era as well, which is obviously more problematic for modern viewers (it’s hard enough to get people to “forgive” black and white; the idea of a “silent” film is almost as bad as the prospect of subtitles to modern audiences!) Also, Hitch was still dabbling in many different genres – from romances to sports films, dramas to comedies – and had yet to settle into the suspense genre that he would become synonymous with. The 1927 silent film “The Lodger” was his first foray into the field, and if you’re tempted to try out a Hitch silent then this is the one to go for as it’s inspired by the Jack The Ripper case. (Real cinema buffs will remember that the film is alluded to in Robert Altman’s magnificent 2001 “Gosford Park” where one of the characters is a fictional version of the star of “The Lodger”, Ivor Novello.)

Bridging the two eras is the film “Blackmail” from 1929: it started filming as a silent and then halfway through the studio suddenly realised they needed to move into talkies, and Hitch had to reshoot many sections and work around the problem of his star being from Czechoslovakia with a strong accent completely at odds with the character she was playing, a London shop girl. On the spot, Hitch had to invent “dubbing” to make it work.

The film is slow in parts, but it also has some genuinely thrilling moments for any cinephile: a wordless initial montage of a Flying Squad investigation, featuring an eye-catching dolly zoom into a mirror to show the felon’s view of the policemen creeping up on him; the murder of a lecherous artist in his studio; an innovatory jump cut as the guilty murderer gets startled by a tramp, back to the the screaming landlady finding the body; and the most famous, the sequence where the dialogue chatter fades away leaving only the word “knife” standing out, stabbing into the soundtrack time and again until the murderer can take it no more. And to top it all, the film finishes with an effects-laden chase through the British Museum, the first of many such chases that Hitch would go on to make, and the first time he used a famous landmark: later he would co-opt the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore in his more famous celebrated films.

I don’t expect to convert anyone to the delights of “Blackmail” or the silent films or even the early talkies. If you’re new to Hitchcock, the best place to start is with Hitch’s films of the 50s, including “Vertigo”, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (Hitch’s remake of his own 1930s original), “Dial M for Murder” and of course the incomparable “Rear Window”, one of my favourite films of all time. After that you can look at Hitch’s 1940s film output, where he was trapped in the Hollywood studio system but still making films of impressive quality such as “Notorious”, “Suspicion” and “Shadow of a Doubt” with top stars like Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton.

And of course there’s also “Rebecca”, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine (and shown on BBC4 tonight at 10pm). It was Hitch’s first movie Stateside and in many ways the least-Hitchcock-like of all the films he made. Many people don’t even realise it is a Hitch movie: the book (by Daphne Du Maurier), stars (also including George Sanders and Nigel Bruce) and producer (David O. Selznick) overshadow Hitch in this one and he can’t have been happy about that – he was never a shy and retiring director happy to stay in the background. But “Hitchcockian” or not, it’s a magnificent film and should have won him the Academy Award (which, famously, he never did win in his career – another reason why the Oscars are a load of twaddle.)

Because Hitchcock spent almost his entire career – over 50 films – in the suspense/thriller genre, we have a very clear sense of what that term “Hitchcockian” means. It’s because in many ways he created the very genre on film, and anyone working in the genre inevitably feels like a copycat who is only a shadow of the original, the master. His stories and the way they are brought to the screen are as archetypal as the stories by William Shakespeare have proven to be (as an interesting blog post by Hichcock geek Joel Gunz proposes.)

Hopefully all that’s inspired you to give the BBC4 Hitchcock season a go, or perhaps to pick up one of those 14-film boxsets for £20 that you can find in stores. Worth every penny and then some, and strongly recommended.

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