The master comes home in this pair of oft-forgotten titles now on Blu-ray
As a director, Alfred Hitchcock became just as synonymous with Hollywood and glamorous movie stars as he did with genuine fear and suspense. His many titles managed to not only highlight the power of the movie star but also tested where cinema could go in terms of mystery and murder. The result is a vast body of work that still holds up today.
Before his Hollywood glory days, Hitchcock also proved himself to be one of Britain’s most dynamic filmmakers. Always curious about the different levels of storytelling the camera could capture, Hitchcock wasted no time becoming a director who found himself emerging as one of the pioneers of early British cinema. By revolutionizing silent films with the kind of imagery seldom seen and then brilliantly melding sound with suspense when the talkies came to town, the director consistently challenged the boundaries of film. It’s this curiosity that Hitchcock brought with him to Hollywood where his style would be perfected and his career would be defined, with the odd (yet notable) visit back home.
Recently, two of Hitchcock’s lesser-known England-set entries have made their way to blu-ray, showing how the master’s genius and showmanship were just as powerful across the pond.
Adapted from a Joseph Jefferson Farjeon play, 1932’s Number 17tells a darkly funny suspense tale about a man (John Stuart) and a woman (Anne Casson) who find themselves in a big deserted house with a group of thieves and a dead body. Later, in 1950’s Stage Fright, an aspiring actress (Jane Wyman) rushes to the aid of a good friend (Richard Todd) after he tells her he’s been accused of murdering the husband of the celebrated stage star he adores (Marlene Dietrich).
The director famously hated his early films because of their imperfections. This isn’t surprising seeing as how this period, despite containing some undeniable classics, was essentially an elaborate training ground where Hitchcock learned just what kind of filmmaker he wanted to be. Despite this, the director felt that Number 17 got him into something of a careless mood. Hitchcock had attempted adapting several stage plays, with the most noteworthy being Easy Virtue. Even if the film wasn’t a massive hit, the success he had with The Lodger, Blackmail, and Murder! heralded Hitchcock as a new talent. With Number 17, Hitchcock must’ve been hoping to continue his winning streak. However not only was the final product a flop, but for some, it seemed to suggest that Hitchcock might not be capable of the talent many felt he possessed.
Even so, there’s a genuine playfulness within the film that cannot help but come through. The pacing, the way elements unfold, the revelations; all of it is expertly handled with Hitchcock’s precision and his trademark tongue-in-cheek humor. It was impossible to avoid Number 17’s stage nature, especially given the structure of the plot. Yet the film never feels stagey and the story wonderfully opens up in the third act, culminating in an ending that could be described as Hitchcock at his most childlike.
Time hasn’t been the kindest to Number 17. Modern critics seem to be reacting to it just as harshly as those who reviewed the film when it first came out. However, while reviewers in the 30s were perhaps judging the movie by its original text and the previous output from an exciting new director, those revisiting it today cannot help but view Number 17 with the imprint of the master’s unparalleled body of work. Even if he was using it to cut his teeth, the film cannot help but bear Hitchcock’s unmistakable stamp.
Despite his legendary tumultuous relationship with David O. Selznick in the 1940s, Hollywood had been good to Hitchcock, with films such as Shadow of a Doubt and Saboteur helping to establish a rapport with American audiences. It’s because of this that his return to London in 1950 with the dramatic thriller Stage Fright both sticks out and is easily overlooked. For my money, this proves unwarranted since there’s a great deal of fun to be had with the film. Dietrich’s sensuous crooning of “The Laziest Girl in Town” is so dreamy, that it’s no wonder it quickly became more famous than the movie itself. Hitchcock appropriately staggers the twists and the humor, while Wyman proves to be one of his most unjustly unsung heroines, showing an agency missing from other female studio roles of the day.
Watching Stage Fright, it’s hard not to notice the father/daughter element that runs through it. One can’t help but wonder if Wyman’s character resembled Hitchcock’s own daughter, Patricia, in a few ways. Like the character, Hitch’s daughter was transatlantic and even shared physical characteristics with Wyman. Adding to this is the fact that Hitchcock gave her a supporting role in the film and had her serve as Wyman’s stunt double. Hitchcock’s emphasis on the father/daughter relationship is further accentuated thanks to the relationship Wyman’s character has with her father (a fantastic Alistair Sim), who immediately takes on the role of partner-in-crime as he joins his daughter in the quest to prove her friend’s innocence.
Beyond the family dynamic, Stage Fright’s theater theme can be found in virtually every scene with all the characters giving various performances that are in line with their motives. The film even opens with a curtain over London, promising a story of murder and passion that is taking place on one of the world’s most famous stages. If Stage Fright doesn’t offer up the kind of thrills and suspense that audiences had come to expect from the director, it does offer up a heartfelt portrait of a post-war London that was soldiering on.
Even though he became one of Hollywood’s top directors (some might even say the top), Hitchcock never fully forgot his homeland. He famously remade 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much with James Stewart and Doris Day and gave audiences perhaps one of the best climaxes of his career by ending the movie in heart-pounding fashion at London’s famous Albert Hall. Meanwhile, Hitchcock’s final professional return to Britain with 1972’s Frenzy resulted in what many consider his last great film. The story of a serial killer who stalked the streets of London showed the director’s flair for visual storytelling was as alive as ever and gave Hitch a full circle moment for what would be his penultimate film. Although Number 17 and Stage Fright showed different shades of Hitchcock, as did the aforementioned films, they also showed a filmmaker with a deep affection for where he came from and an ability to capture it on the screen in ways few others could.
Number 17 is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.
Stage Fright is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Archive.