Hitchcock’s Classic Thriller Sextet

Between 1934 and 1938, Alfred Hitchcock made six films in England that stand collectively as the highlight of his British period. Dubbed Hitch’s “classic thriller sextet” by theorists and critics, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (’35), Secret Agent (’36), Sabotage (also ’36), Young and Innocent (or The Girl was Young Indeed, 1937), and The Lady Vanishes (1938) all contain thematic and visual elements that he would later implement in his Hollywood films—starting with his Oscar-winning Rebecca in 1940—contributing massively to his success as a peerless master of the suspense thriller.

Aside from The Man Who Knew Too Much, which was an original screenplay, all the others—which, typically for films of the period, run to 80 minutes on average—were based on popular novels: The 39 Steps on John Buchan’s novel of the same name; Secret Agent on two stories by W. Somerset Maugham; Sabotage on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (which had its name changed for obvious reasons); Young and Innocent on Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles; and The Lady Vanishes on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins, by Ethel Lina White. Aside from Sabotage, which may see release in the near future, five of the sextet’s six films have recently been reissued on DVD by Madman on their Directors Suite label with simple but stylish packaging and the now-standard accompanying essays and audio commentaries.

All six films, says the University of Melbourne’s Mairéad Phillips, are “characterised by a sense of photographic realism and dialogue that suggests everyday experience.” Yet “in spite of this naturalism,” she writes, “Hitchcock introduces, via a dreamlike logic, a hitherto unforeseen sense of menace and dread.” Phillips, in my estimation, isn’t saying the “sense of menace and dread” is unforeseen merely within the narrative itself: Hitch pioneered his early thriller techniques with these films, even though they might appear at first glance to look very much like the subdued British filmmaking typical of the period. The Man Who Knew Too Much is a seminal work for Hitchcock: not only does it play a pivotal role in his British period, but, in a rare move for a prominent, internationally renowned filmmaker, Hitch later remade the film himself, some twenty years later (with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, for Paramount in 1956). It’s a spy thriller that, says Phillips, carries all the hallmarks that make the genre work in literary form, but adds “Hitchcock’s artistic temperament and commercial ambitions.”

John Buchan’s adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps, which first appeared as a serial in August and September of 1915, has been the basis for a number of film adaptations, with the most recent being a 2008 version for British television. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version, spelled out in numbers rather than words as The 39 Steps, though it would inspire a later remake in 1959 and a further (and more faithful) adaptation in 1978, remains highly regarded. It occupies the fourth spot on the BFI’s Top 100 list, and, in 2004, Total Film magazine named it the 21st best British film ever. It is interesting, then, that Hitchcock almost totally discarded the novel during the writing process, as Brian McFarlane illustrates in his essay that accompanies the DVD release, with this opening quote from Hitch in conversation with Truffaut: “What I do is read a story once and, if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.”

The story he’s filmed here is relatively simple: a man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent, but the agent is killed, and the man stands accused. He has to go on the run to save himself while at the same time trying to protect top-secret information from slipping into the hands of an enemy spy ring. The 39 Steps remains a jewel not only of Hitchcock’s British period but of his entire career.

For Secret Agent, Hitch once again turned to the screenwriter and the star of The 39 Steps: writer Charles Bennett, and actress Madeleine Carroll. Another espionage adventure, this is among the more comedic of the sextet, containing as it does swathes of Hitch’s typical dark humour. A celebrated war hero is approached by British Intelligence to eliminate an enemy in (Continental) Europe. He fakes his death, takes the name “Ashenden” (which derives from Maugham’s twin stories upon which the film is based), and bunkers down in Switzerland. When he accidentally targets the wrong man, however, he begins to question his suitability for the mission…

Among the least known of Hitch’s British period is Young and Innocent, which at one time also carried the moderately lascivious title The Girl is Young Indeed. The film, like many of Hitchcock’s greatest, follows an innocent man accused of something he didn’t do: in this case he spies a young woman’s body washed up on a beach and runs to get help—only, this being a Hitchcock movie, his good act isn’t viewed so kindly. He befriends the local police chief’s daughter in a bid to clear his name, and in the process strikes up a romance. Young and Innocent is fascinating in that it pre-empts Hitch’s later successes The Birds and North by Northwest both visually and thematically, albeit without much of the innovative technicalities and complex storylines that would mark those later works.

As Ken Mogg notes in the opening lines of his accompanying essay, François Truffaut, who saw the film many, many times, said he never worked out the technicalities of The Lady Vanishes because he was always far too absorbed and moved by the characters and the story. Matthew Sweet, as Mogg points out, has called the film Hitch’s “most political,” and is among a recent crop of writers who praise the film as more than merely “light entertainment”—though it certainly retains that function today. A young woman coming home to England (from a fictional European country) by train after a holiday befriends an elderly lady named Miss Froy who has worked for many years as a governess. Our protagonist falls asleep while talking to the old woman, and awakens to find that she’s disappeared—and that no one aboard, or at least none of the English-speaking passengers, knew she was even there in the first place…

Hitch’s “classic thriller sextet” readied the master to take on Hollywood: two years after he made The Lady Vanishes—his last film in England for 33 years until he made Frenzy, his penultimate film, in 1972—Hitch adapted yet another novel for the screen in Rebecca, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent, and The Lady Vanishes are now out on DVD through Madman.

Each disc includes various special features including theatrical trailers, audio interviews, and image galleries.The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, and The Lady Vanishes have audio commentaries by academics and Hitchcock scholars from The University of Melbourne and Monash University. Each except The Secret Agent has an accompanying booklet containing an essay on the film in question.

The 39 Steps is the only disc to feature a transfer from a recently restored print; all the others, while eminently watchable, are of varying video and audio quality. The 39 Steps is also the only disc with a video featurette: “On Location,” a 13-minute short documentary hosted by Robert Powell, looks at the locations used in Hitch’s film and two other films by the same name, including the 1978 version Powell starred in.

Also available: Hitchcock’s silent films The Ring, The Manxman, and The Lodger.


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