Friday, 20 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock - lesser-known gems Part II

The Genius of Alfred Hitchcock at the BFI: 10 of his lesser-known gems Part II

By Pamela Hutchinson and Tony Paley
Wednesday 4 July 2012

Sabotage (1936)

Darker in tone and more harrowing than its reputation allows, Sabotage is arguably the most underrated of Hitchcock's still undervalued British period. A loose adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel The Secret Agent about a shadowy network of anarchists, the film deserves to be remembered for much more than Hitchcock famously regretting his decision to let the bomb go off at the end of one of the director's most celebrated and manipulative suspense sequences.

The movie's central couple run a cinema, which Hitchcock uses to masterful effect in an intriguing and rich sequence contrasting Walt Disney on the screen with the heartbreak of the wife following the tragedy at the centre of the narrative. The scene involving the "murder" (or is it "willed suicide"?) of her husband foreshadows the most brutal and shocking killing in Hitchcock's canon 30 years later, that of the East German agent Gromek in Torn Curtain (1966). Tony Paley

Young and Innocent (1937)

The attention devoted to The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) has ensured that Young and Innocent has remained the poor relation of Hitchcock's three 1930s comedy thrillers – but it's not hard to see why this hugely enjoyable film was reportedly Hitchcock's personal favourite among his 23 British movies. The class elements, so central to his best British films, abound in a double-chase story, involving an innocent man wrongly accused of strangling a famous actress and his involvement with the alluring daughter of the chief constable charged with recapturing him.

There are plot points and directorial flourishes here that would resurface in his more mature masterpieces The Birds (1963) and North By Northwest (1959) while the birthday party sequence introduces us to Aunt Margaret, one of Hitchcock's formidable matriarchs. It's worth the price of admission alone to see on the big screen the most famous single piece of camerawork of Hitchcock's British output, the marvellous travelling crane shot which takes the audience the full length of a hotel ballroom and into the eyes of the man the protagonists are desperately searching for. TP

Lifeboat (1944)

Hitchcock's most celebrated cinematic experiment was his dazzling use of the continuous take in Rope (1948), to present the film as if it was happening in real time. Rope also revelled in its restricted setting – something tried out again in Dial M for Murder and Rear Window; but his first audacious use of that method of shooting was in Lifeboat.

All 96 minutes of action take place in a lifeboat containing eight survivors of a ship carrying American and British passengers and the captain of a German U-boat following the sinking of both vessels during a battle in the second world war. Press reaction was hostile after Hitchcock, far from producing a piece of propaganda, delivered a complex drama as tense dramatically as it was brilliant technically in which the characters, and by implication the audience, are made to face up to what is required to win a war.

The captain, as in so many of the director's films, is no stock villain but revealed to be the best equipped of any on the boat for survival and the circumstances of the two murders that ensue are in turns, shocking, and brutal. The film ends with a character pointing at the enemy and asking, "What are you going to do with people like that?" Hitchcock's achievement in the previous hour and a half is to make it clear that there are no easy answers. TP

The Paradine Case (1947)

Hitchcock's rough-cut of The Paradine Case, with which producer David Selznick tinkered extensively in post-production, was lost in a flood in the 1980s. That's a shame as its restoration would surely have revived interest in a film now almost wholly neglected but which has at its core themes the director was to return to with such devastating effect in Vertigo. In no other Hitchcock film, bar that 1958 masterpiece, is the central male character so undermined as he is here, with Gregory Peck as a barrister who ends up destroying the object of his obsession, the woman he is supposed to be defending on a charge of murder. Peck's wife's plea to him to win the case, despite her knowledge of his love for her rival, and her protestation that "if she dies you are lost to me forever" undercuts the notional happy ending here in a film darkened even moreby Charles Laughton's scene-stealing role as the grotesque judge, Lord Horfield. TP

Dial M For Murder 3D (1954)

Though Dial M for Murder is now given cursory attention by film scholars and critics, the screenings of the movie at the BFI Hitchcock retrospective could well be the hottest ticket on the London repertory film circuit this summer. Memories of the version film seen by the vast majority of audiences, whether at the cinema or on television, will be swept away after the chance to see it afresh in 3D.

Film historian Ian Christie says the 3D presentation is the highlight of the season: "Hitchcock was always looking for ways to implicate the audience in the drama of a scene and 3D offered him a way of bringing the audience into the room with Grace Kelly." Hitchcock uses 3D effects sparingly in a film almost wholly shot in one room, but the gripping scene in which Kelly's character is attacked and strangled is a legendarily stunning use of the format. Bill Krohn, in his book Hitchcock at Work, said that in 1954 the studio "decided to give theatres the option of playing the film 'flat', and most of them did but [Dial M for Murder] should really be seen 'in depth' ". TP

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