Recently I’ve re-watched four Hitchcock films that I consider part of his second tier output.
For example, Topaz, his 1969 cold war film based on a Leon Uris best seller. Hitchcock reportedly wasn’t pleased with the script, but the studio wouldn’t allow him time for revisions.
Preview audiences hated it, saying it was much too long at two hours and twenty minutes, and they especially heaped scorn on the duel that ended the picture, so Hitchcock drastically cut the film and devised a second ending, which the studio didn’t like. So the studio cobbled together yet a third ending and released the picture to boos from the critics and yawns from the public. I didn’t see it until sometime in the 90s, I think, and didn’t much care for it either.
I approached my re-viewing with some trepidation. As it turns out, the version released on DVD and Blu-ray is Hitch’s original cut with his second ending. It’s actually a pretty decent thriller for its time, but except for a few sequences here and there (such as a very suspenseful sequence in Harlem—the film’s best), it just doesn’t seem like a Hitchcock movie. The pacing is a bit leisurely, especially in the last 45 minutes or so, where some cuts are definitely warranted. And frankly, though I hate to admit it, I prefer the studio’s ending to Hitch’s.
Then there’s Rebecca, which is the only Hitchcock directed film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Again, it’s a decent, maybe even a great movie, but it just isn’t a Hitchcock movie, except for a few touches here and there. That’s primarily because of the interference of David O. Selznick, who insisted on fidelity to the novel and wouldn’t give Hitchcock the freedom he required.
Still, it repays multiple viewings; all Hitch’s films repay multiple viewings. While American audiences would not have realized it, the doctor played by Leo G. Carroll near the end of the picture is probably supposed to be an abortionist—something that British audiences would have realized from the shabby neighborhood where his office resides. The movie strongly hints that Mrs. Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, is a lesbian, and the censors warned Hitchcock against making that explicit, which was a big no-no at the time.
And it’s clear that Rebecca was a major influence on Orson Welles, as one can see hints of Citizen Kane everywhere, not just in the opening shot of the great estate and the closing shot of a treasured item going up in flames.
By contrast I’ve always loved Young and Innocent, Hitch’s 1937 romp about a Chief Constable’s daughter helping a wrongly accused man prove his innocence, ever since I first saw it in the early 80s. It is definitely a Hitchcock film with lots of humor (something the two previous films lack) and many of his classic touches. And near the end it has one of my absolute favorite Hitchcock sequences—a long tracking shot where the camera sweeps across a ballroom filled with dancing couples until it zeros in on one particular person. Hitchcock even commissioned the song that is very appropriately played by the band for this sequence. One of the absolute classic Hitchcock moments and well worth seeing the picture just for this sequence, but really the whole movie is a lot of fun. I only classify this as second tier Hitch because of some problems with the script and some uses of miniatures that are just way too obvious.
And finally there is 1938’s The Lady Vanishes. This is absolutely quintessential Hitchcock. Lots of humor, in fact it might be the funniest movie that Hitchcock ever made, as the first 25 minutes unreel as what appears to be a screwball comedy, and the comedy never lets up even as the film turns darker, and it gets very dark indeed. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot and many deft Hitchcock touches. But pay close attention during the first 25 minutes; there is a lot of important expostion deftly interwoven among the comedic hijinks.
Hitchcock would often talk about the difference between suspense and surprise. If you have two people sitting at a table talking for five minutes and then a bomb goes off under the table—well, you have a few seconds of surprise.
For suspense, you must give the audience some information that the characters don’t have. So you show the audience the bomb under the table, then the five minutes that those characters are talking is five minutes filled with suspense.
In The Lady Vanishes there are no bombs, but there are two scenes of characters sitting at a table and talking where the audience knows something that they don’t, and those scenes are deliciously suspenseful.
More than that, Hitchcock could see what was happening in Europe at that time and he was pretty contemptuous of the British government’s efforts to appease Hitler and of the British public’s seeming complacency. So he and the screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder filled the script with lots of satiric references; listen closely to some of the dialog, and watch what happens to the character who tries to appease the villains.
Here’s a sample of the dialog:
Dr. Hartz: And I am Dr. Egon Hartz; you may have heard of me.
Gilbert: Not the brain surgeon?
Dr. Hartz: Yes, the same.
Gilbert: Yes, you flew over to England the other day and operated on one of our cabinet ministers.
Dr. Hartz: Oh, yes.
Gilbert: Tell me, did you find anything?
Dr. Hartz: A slight cerebral contusion.
Gilbert: Oh well, that’s better than nothing.
So why do I classify The Lady Vanishes as second tier Hitch? Actually on second thought, I’d put it right up there among his best.