The Early Hitchcock Collection: Sound Films Review

[The Early Hitchcock Collection is a nine-disc box set, which I am covering in two reviews. None of the films are released separately by Optimum.]

Blackmail (82:04)

Alice White (Anny Ondra) is the daughter of a shopkeeper, and her boyfriend Frank (John Longden) works for Scotland Yard as a detective. However, Alice is secretly seeing another man (Donald Calthrop), an artist who invites her upstairs to see his studio. There he tries to seduce Alice. Fighting him off, she stabs him with a knife and kills him. The next day, the news of the murder has travelled all across London and Frank is assigned to the case…

Based on a play by Charles Bennett, Blackmail began production as a silent, but Hitchcock anticipated change was on its way. The Jazz Singer had been released and it soon became clear that talking pictures were no passing fad. While he was shooting Blackmail, Hitchcock covered himself – keeping mouths out of shot as much as possible, for example – so that when the instruction came to make the film a talkie, Britain’s first, he needed relatively few reshoots to complete the process. A silent version was prepared, for the cinemas which had not yet converted to sound. This version still exists, and some rate it higher than the more widely shown talkie version. Optimum could perhaps have included both versions on their DVD, but unfortunately have not.

In his silent films, Hitchcock had developed a primarily visual style, reducing the number of intertitles to a minimum. This is shown in Blackmail’s opening sequence, which shows Scotland Yard at work. This is filmed as a silent (though with synchronised music and a few sound effects), although there are no intertitles. Then, when the scene is at an end, the characters speak – “the Mother Tongue as it should be spoken”, as the notably anglocentric advertising put it. However, for Czech-German lead actress Anny Ondra, this posed a problem. In a silent such as The Manxman, her Continental origins were not an issue; in a talkie, her heavy accent certainly was. Hitchcock’s solution was to have Ondra mouth her lines to the dialogue spoken in cut-glass tones by Joan Barry just off set, thus inventing dubbing.

Unlike master silent directors such as Murnau or Chaplin, Hitchcock did not resist the talking picture but seized upon the possibilities of sound. This is particularly noticeable in the famous “knife” sequence. It’s the morning after the killing, and Alice is at breakfast with her family when a gossipy neighbour brings the news. As she discusses the killing. Hitchcock reduced the sound so that only the word “knife” is prominent, which becomes suddenly louder when Alice picks up the implement in question, when asked by her father to cut a slice of bread.

Another first is a brief, comic sequence where Hitchcock appears, as a man in a train carriage bothered by a young boy. Hitchcock’s cameo appearances – he had previously appeared briefly in The Lodger - would later become a trademark. (The only other cameo in this box set can be seen in Murder!.)

With Blackmail, Hitchcock’s career as The Master of Suspense began, the use of sound completing the template begun with The Lodger. Its influence has been enormous: it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as a prototype film noir, over a decade before that style became popular. Nearly eighty years later, Blackmail still works very well, and culminates in a memorable setpiece in the British Museum.

Murder! (98:01)

After Blackmail, Hitchcock made another stage adaptation, Juno and the Paycock, from the play by Sean O’Casey. That film is not included in this set, nor is Elstree Calling, a revue piece to which Hitchcock contributed some sketches. Murder! is another thriller, but of a type that Hitchcock rarely made: a whodunnit.
Diana Baring (Norah Baring) has been arrested for murder, and a jury finds her guilty. As she awaits execution, one of the jurors, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) has second thoughts and decides to investigate on his own.

Hitchcock did not favour the whodunnit as a subgenre, as it was more of an intellectual puzzle than visceral suspense, and the latter is what he was after. Needless to say, Murder! is very dated – it contains one of the earliest gay stereotypes in cinema – but as ever with Hitchcock, his inventiveness makes it worthwhile. Having invented dubbing – postsychronisation before “post” was possible – in Blackmail, he invented the on-screen internal monologue. As Sir John listens to Wagner while shaving, we listen to his thoughts. Given the primitive nature of film sound recording, the orchestra was hidden behind the shaving mirror, and Marshall acted to a recording of his own voice.

In the early days of talkies, it was not unusual to make alternative-language versions of films. Hitchcock did so here, directing a German-language version (called Mary, running 78 minutes) with different actors but the same set. One copy of this version is known to exist, and it’s a pity it could not be included as an extra.

The Skin Game (78:59)

The Skin Game is another play adaptation, from John Galsworthy this time. Mr Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn) is a property speculator intent on buying up land and building factories on it. This appals the Hillcrist family, who have lived in the area for generations, and they decide to fight back. Like The Farmer’s Wife, this is an atypical Hitchcock film, being a comedy. However, while the silent Farmer’s Wife pared down the dialogue in a wordy play, this sound film tends to bog down in talk. Given the source, this is good talk, but this is probably one of Hitchcock’s least cinematic films. A few setpieces, such as an auction, allow him to show what he is capable of, and the acting is good, but this is very much a minor work. It’s fair to say that some people, including Noël Simsolo in his introduction, rate it rather higher.

Rich and Strange (79:51)

Hitchcock’s next film is certainly strange, and some have called it rich. Written by Hitchcock and Alma Reville from a story by the (possibly non-existent) Dale Collins, it is the story of an ordinary couple, Fred and Emily Hill (Henry Kendall and Joan Barry), who unexpectedly come into an inheritance and go on a world cruise. However, this is a recipe for trouble.

Rich and Strange is a peculiar mixture of love story and black comedy, with silent-style intertitles marking key points in the storyline. At the centre of it all is our indomitable lead couple who, despite their scrapes and misadventures and the strain on their marriage, remain together until the end. The title is a quotation from The Tempest.

The film was a resounding flop at the time and has never been a popular favourite. However, critics have re-evaluated this most un-Hitchcockian of films as one of the highlights of his British period. It’s likely to be an acquired taste for many viewers. Note the pre-Gone With the Wind (and pre-Hays Code) use of “damn”, showing that British viewers were relatively more robust about realistic language than their counterparts across the Atlantic. (Having said that, the BBFC did cut this film on release for an A certificate – it’s now a U. Does anyone know what was taken out?)

Number Seventeen

Number Seventeen was a play by J. Jefferson Farjeon, which had been previously filmed in 1920. As a result of this earlier version, the rights were held by British International Picture. Coming off the box office disaster of Rich and Strange, Hitchcock saw Number Seventeen as a run for cover, returning to the genre which he was best known for. However, Number Seventeen comes over like a parody of the suspense thriller, more than half of it consisting of shenanigans inside an old house – with a very prominent stairway – and culminating in a chase sequence involving a train, cars and buses. The plot makes no sense, though it’s doubtful it was ever meant to. On the other hand, Hitchcock lays on the style: quick cutting and expressionistic lighting early on, and an exciting chase sequence, despite the very obvious use of models. Number Seventeen is a short, minor knockoff, and great fun.

The DVDs

These five films form part of Optimum’s nine-disc Early Hitchcock Collection. All the discs are PAL format, encoded for Region 2 only and single-layered, apart from Murder! which is dual-layered.

Silent films were shot in a ratio of 1.33:1. Early talkies, by having a soundtrack on the print itself, narrowed the ratio to 1.20:1. Many directors and DPs found this too close to a square to be comfortable with it, so in 1932, the framelines were thickened, reducing the frame height to compensate for the narrowed width and to replicate the original ratio. And so Academy Ratio was born – though it was in fact 1.37:1, and no-one seems to have an explanation for the discrepancy. All of the films in this set should be presented in 1.20:1, but only one is - Blackmail. The others are presented in 1.33:1. Visually they are all rather soft, which may reflect a lowish bitrate, or the simple age of these films, or both.

All the films are presented with their original mono soundtracks. It’s pointless to complain about the limitations of early sound recording: the crackle, the narrow dynamic range (basically all middle, with little treble and bass). That’s the way the films have always sounded, and is part of the charm of early talkies. It’s more significant to mention when the tracks are actually damaged – one short scene in The Skin Game is without sound at all for a few seconds, and the soundtrack on that film is probably the worst of the lot. Needless to say, Optimum have a regrettable policy of not providing subtitles on their English-language releases. There are twelve chapter stops on each disc.

Each film is accompanied by short introductions by critic and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, who speaks in French and is subtitled into English. Simsolo is an interesting speaker, who does a good, concise job of describing the background and context of each film. Rather endearingly, by the time he gets to Number Sixteen he is clearly in need of a cigarette, so he goes ahead and lights up! Each film has a self-navigating stills gallery, lasting around a minute.

Two of the discs have additional extras. On the Blackmail disc there are two. First is Anny Ondra’s screen test, where Hitchcock talks dirty to his star, who collapses in laughter. Even so, her accent (the purpose of the exercise) is quite apparent. This clip, courtesy of the National Film Archive, runs 57 seconds. The second extra compares the “knife” scene in the silent (1:15) and sound (1:30) versions. Intriguingly, the gossipy neighbour is played by a different actress in each version. As I say above, the silent version, at 77 minutes, is short enough to fit with the sound version on a DVD-9, so it’s a pity that Optimum haven’t done so.

On the Murder! disc, there is an alternative ending (9:41). Also on this disc is a documentary, Hitchcock: The Early Years (52:22). This is a French-made film, directed by Noël Simsolo. Interviews and narration are in French (subtitled into English) though the film extracts themselves are in the original English. Interviewees include Claude Chabrol and Bernard Eisenschitz, plus audio recordings of Hitchcock himself being interviewed (via an interpreter) by François Truffaut. This documentary, presented in 4:3, is a thorough look at the films of Hitchcock up to 1934. In an ideal world, I would have used this space for the film’s German-language version Mary (assuming it was available) and moved this documentary to go with Number Seventeen, which is by far the shortest film in the set.

Between them, Optimum’s set from 2007 and Network’s from 2008 present nineteen of Hitchcock’s British films of the 20s and 30s. If you could afford only one, I would go with the Network set as it includes the established classics. The films in Optimum’s set are more for the connoisseur: the underrated works, the interesting but minor pieces. Both sets have their shortcomings as well as their strong points, and of course an established fan will want them both.

8 out of 10
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