Finding His Style: Alfred Hitchcock's British Films

Eighty years ago, Alfred Hitchcock left Britain to work for independent producer David O. Selznick in Hollywood. Ironically, his American debut, Rebecca (1940), was among his most typically English films and it's this phase of Hitch's remarkable career that Cinema Paradiso invites you to explore.

The youngest of three, Alfred Hitchcock was born on 13 August 1899 in the flat above the Leytonstone greengrocery leased by his parents, William and Emma. Raised as a Roman Catholic, Hitchcock had highly developed notions of right and wrong and his fear of transgression was exacerbated when his father sent him to the local police station with a note asking for the five year-old Alfred to be locked in a cell so that he could learn what happens 'to naughty boys'. 

A few months later, the family relocated to Limehouse and lived above their fish and chip shop before moving to Stepney when Hitchcock was 11. He attended St Ignatius College in Tottenham, where he was regularly beaten by the Jesuit teachers, who instilled the senses of dread and discipline that remained with Hitchcock for the rest of his life. But, shortly after he enrolled at the London County Council School of Engineering and Navigation in Poplar, the 14 year-old Hitchcock was forced to find work after the sudden death of his father.

A Varied Apprenticeship

Hired as a technical clerk at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company, Hitchcock continued his education through evening classes. At the height of the Great War, he also joined a volunteer corps of the Royal Engineers but saw no more action than the odd field exercise in Hyde Park. From June 1919, however, much of his spare time was taken up with The Henley Telegraph, the in-house publication that Hitchcock founded and edited when not at the cinema developing a love of DW Griffith, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Moreover, he started writing short stories like 'Gas' and 'Sordid', which he published in the Telegraph.

Despite enjoying his new job in Henley's advertising department, Hitchcock had been bitten by the film bug, So, when Paramount's production unit, Famous Players-Lasky, announced that it would be shooting an adaptation of Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan in London, he submitted some illustrated intertitles on spec and was engaged to work at Islington Studios in 1919. When the Corelli project was cancelled, Hitchcock was assigned to design title cards for Hugh Ford's The Great Day (1920) and he would serve a similar function on 11 further features by such British and American directors as Donald Crisp, Paul Powell, John S. Robertson and George Fitzmaurice.

He graduated to art director on the latter's Three Live Ghosts (1922) and was retained by Michael Balcon when the company he had formed with director Victor Saville moved into Islington after Paramount curtailed its London experiment. Assigned to star director Graham Cutts, Hitch tried his hand at scriptwriting and producing, as well as designing sets for Woman to Woman (1923), which would be distributed in the United States by Lewis Selznick, the father of Hitchcock's Hollywood sponsor. While filming at UFA's Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, Hitchcock got to watch FW Murnau shooting his Expressionist masterpiece, The Last Laugh (1924), and picked up visual tropes and camera techniques that would stand him in good stead during his first decade as a director. 

Calling the Shots

In 1922, while Hitchcock was part of the skeleton staff keeping Islington Studios operational, he was entrusted with a script by Anita Ross entitled, Number 13. It was also known as Mrs Peabody, as the story centred on the residents of a low-rent tenement founded by philanthropist George Foster Peabody. Actress Clare Greet and Hitchcock's Uncle John invested in the production. But Hitch only had enough money for a few scenes and the project collapsed, although he remained so grateful to Greet that she became his most cast actress in The Ring (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Sabotage (1936) and Jamaica Inn (1939).

Hitchcock got a second crack at directing when actor Seymour Hicks arrived at Islington to make Always Tell Your Wife, a comedy of marital manners he had previously filmed with director Leedham Bantock in 1914. It's not known whether Hicks fell out with frequent collaborator Hugh Croise or the latter fell ill, but Hitchcock was promoted from assistant director to complete the two-reel farce. Hicks seemingly had little faith in the 'fat youth who was in charge of the property room' and there's no evidence that the film (which only survives in a single reel) ever reached cinemas. But Hitchcock did enough to persuade Balcon to offer him a full-time post with Gainsborough Pictures.

By the time Hitchcock assisted Cutts for the final time on The Prude's Fall (1925), Balcon decided he had learned enough from his mentor to make his full directorial debut. Allowing Hitchcock to appoint fiancée Alma Reville as his assistant and editor, Balcon packed the 25 year-old off to the Geiselgasteig studios near Munich to make The Pleasure Garden (1925) as a co-production with the German firm, Emelka. Adapted from an Oliver Sandys novel by Eliot Stannard (who would remain a key collaborator throughout the silent era), the story centred on the fate of chorine Virginia Hill after she meets the caddish Miles Mander through her friend Carmelita Geraghty.

Containing scenes shot on location in Italy, this was a daring enterprise for a first-timer and Balcon was sufficiently impressed to send his protégé back to Emelka to make The Mountain Eagle (1926). Following the misfortunes of Kentucky teacher Nita Naldi after she spurns shopkeeper Bernhard Goetzke to marry hermit Malcolm Keen, the film has long been lost. But Gainsborough backer CM Woolf had a very low opinion of Hitchcock's first three films, including The Lodger (1926), and delayed their release until the early months of 1927.

Seeking a Style

This 'Story of the London Fog' proved to be Hitchcock's breakthrough and set the trend for staging key scenes at famous landmarks and including amusingly brief cameos. In fact, Hitch appears twice, as he sits in the newsroom reporting on the murders spreading terror across the capital and as a member of the crowd watching chief suspect Ivor Novello being arrested. Yet, while this box-office hit gave an early demonstration of Hitchcock's mastery of suspense, he didn't make another out-and-out thriller for three years. Instead, having moved on to British International Pictures at Elstree, he alternated between such melodramas as The Ring (1927) and The Manxman (1929) and comedies like The Farmer's Wife and Champagne (both 1928).

Even after he confirmed his talent to unsettle with the early talkie, Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock continued to shuffle between the genres. Having contributed a couple of sketches to the sound revue and made a rare excursion into short subjects, he adapted Sean O'Casey's play about the Irish Civil War, Juno and the Paycock (1930). Novelist and playwright Clemence Dane provided the inspiration for Murder! (1930), before Hitchcock collaborated with revered author John Galsworthy on The Skin Game (1931).

In 1932, he moved into producing prior to seeing out his BIP contract with a pair of underrated and decidedly offbeat offerings, Rich and Strange (1931) and Number Seventeen (1932). To contemporary critics, however, it seemed as though the great hope of British cinema had lost his way and they were far from reassured when he launched his career at Michael Balcon's Gaumont-British with the Strauss biography, Waltzes From Vienna (1933).

The Master of Suspense

Everything changed, however, when Balcon gave Hitchcock the creative freedom he required. Joining forces with Charles Bennett, Hitch and Alma fashioned the original screenplay for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), which dared to reflect the developing diplomatic crisis in Europe while reaffirming Hitchcock's penchant for creating suspense by letting the audience know what was going to happen and making them wait to see how the action would pan out. Only rarely did Hitchcock jolt viewers out of their seats. Instead, he preferred to keep them in a state of heightened tension that often became deliciously unbearable.

He confirmed that he had found his métier by adapting bestsellers by John Buchan (The 39 Steps, 1935), W. Somerset Maugham (Secret Agent, 1936), Joseph Conrad (Sabotage, 1936) and Josephine Tey (Young and Innocent, 1937). The theme of espionage loomed large in these critically acclaimed and commercially successful pictures and Hitchcock further exploited audience concerns about the rise of fascism in The Lady Vanishes (1938), which was adapted by the young writing team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat from Ethel Lina White's novel, The Wheel Spins.

This witty and gripping thriller earned Hitchcock the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director and convinced David O. Selznick to offer him an exclusive contract. Honouring a promise to make the period smuggling saga, Jamaica Inn (1939), Hitchcock arrived in Hollywood to adapt another Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca (1940). By the time the film was released, however, the Second World War had broken out and Hitchcock was heavily criticised by colleagues for not returning to Britain to help the war effort. He did direct a couple of shorts for the Ministry of Information, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache (both 1944), but Hitchcock reasoned that he could be of greater propagandist value convincing Americans to support the battle against the Axis.

Keen to help Hitchcock salvage his reputation, producer Sidney Bernstein asked him to advise on a documentary about the Holocaust. Despite being unwilling to make the dangerous crossing while working on Notorious (1946), Hitchcock did offer editorial and structural advice on Project F3080. However, problems with Allied collaborators meant that the footage remained on a shelf in the Imperial War Museum vaults between 1952-84. The five reels were shown on PBS under the title Memory of the Camps, although a fuller version was finally released in 21014 as German Concentration Camps Factual Survey

It made sense for Bernstein to rehabilitate Hitchcock, as the owner of the Granada cinema chain had become his partner in Transatlantic Pictures, a production company that would make Rope (1948) in Hollywood and Under Capricorn (1949) at the MGM studio at Borehamwood. Hitch would switch to Elstree to make Stage Fright (1950) for Warners Bros. But this proved to be his last homemade movie until his penultimate offering, Frenzy (1972), which took him back to his roots, as the killer was a greengrocer.

  • The Lodger (1927) The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

    1h 19min

    Adapted from a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes that drew on the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, Alfred Hitchcock's finest silent achievement bears the unmistakable influence of such German Expressionists as FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. However, the Londoner makes astute use of his hometown, as its citizens pore over stories about The Avenger, a serial killer who only slays blondes on Tuesdays. Producer Michael Balcon refused to let matinee idol Ivor Novello play a murderer and Hitchcock responded by shrouding the denouement in ambiguity. However, imposed collaborator Ivor Montagu did tone down Freudian allusions to homosexuality and incest.

  • The Ring (1927)

    1h 29min

    Having felt constricted at Gainsborough, Hitchcock debuted for British International Pictures with a boxing drama boasting his sole original screenplay. Eliot Stannard and Walter Mycroft might have made uncredited contributions, but this is Hitchcock's story and he revels in its spit-and-sawdust melodramatics. Dane Carl Brissom is suitably imposing as the fairground pugilist who vows revenge on Australian champion Ian Hunter after he humiliates him in the ring and makes a play for sweetheart Lillian Hall-Davis. Working for the first time with cinematographer Jack Cox, Hitchcock gives the imagery a gritty look, while he experimented with the Schüfftan Process to enhance the spectacle of the Royal Albert Hall finale.

  • The Farmer's Wife (1928)

    1h 37min

    Based on his own novel, Widdecombe Fair, Eden Philpott's 1924 West End hit may seem an odd choice for Hitchcock. But, thanks to the location shooting in Devon, Somerset and Surrey, it shares a wry insight into rural life with The Trouble With Harry (1955). Jameson Thomas stars as a widowed farmer, who asks doting housekeeper Lillian Hall-Davis to help him find a suitable bride. Much to the amusement of philosophising handyman Gordon Harker, however, haughty fox hunter Louise Pounds, timid spinster Maud Gill, jolly postmistress Olga Slade and free-spirited barmaid Ruth Maitland want nothing to do with the pompous Thomas, who becomes increasingly irate with each rejection.

  • Champagne (1928)

    1h 25min

    Walter Mycroft originally conceived this effervescent comedy as a sobering morality tale, in which a girl working in a champagne factory in Reims heads to the big city to see what happens to the bottles she spends her days packing. When BIP signed 'Queen of Happiness' Betty Balfour, however, Hitchcock had to tweak the text and started shooting with a patchwork script. As a fizzy flapper living the high life on father Gordon Harker's millions, Balfour views her fellow passengers on an ocean liner through a champagne glass. But she finds herself selling flowers at a cabaret after Harker teaches her a lesson by pretending to be broke.

  • The Manxman (1929)

    1h 20min

    Hitchcock had little time for his penultimate silent, which was adapted from a bestselling novel by Sir Hall Caine that had previously been filmed by American George Loane Tucker in 1916. Cornwall stands in for the Isle of Man, as Hitchcock chronicles the romantic entanglements of fisherman Carl Brissom, lawyer Malcolm Keen and innkeeper's daughter, Anny Ondra. Tormented by their passion after Brissom asks Keen to look after Ondra while he seeks his fortune in an African gold mine after her father denies his marriage proposal, the lovers put a brave face on things when the prodigal returns. It's not Hitch's subtlest work, but Jack Cox's seascapes are sublime.

  • Blackmail (1929)

    1h 25min

    Donald Calthrop had the distinction of appearing in the UK's first talking pictures to be released in both the sound-on-disc and sound-on-film formats. Having co-starred with Benita Hume in Arthur Maude's Phototone adaptation of Edgar Wallace's The Case of the New Pin, he cropped up in Hitchcock's Photophone take on a Charles Bennett play as the blackmailer threatening Anny Ondra after she kills a rapacious artist in self-defence. Surreptitiously shooting silent and sound versions to exploit public curiosity about the talkies, Hitchcock had to place Joan Barry off-camera to deliver Ondra's lines because her Czech accent was so thick. Future director Michael Powell conceived the British Museum finale.

  • Juno and the Paycock (1930)

    1h 35min

    Having admired Sean O'Casey's 1925 play when it transferred to London from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Hitchcock entrusted its adaptation to his wife, Alma, while he sought ways to prevent the story of a family that comes into an unexpected fortune from seeming like canned theatre. He persuaded O'Casey to write the opening pub sequence and the skirmish that follows street orator Barry Fitzgerald's impassioned speech. But much of the talkative action is confined to the poky tenement room where Sara Allgood struggles to cope with preening wastrel husband Edward Chapman and morose son John Laurie, who lost an arm fighting for freedom with the IRA.

  • Murder! (1930)

    1h 38min

    Adapted from Enter Sir John, one of the three crime novels written by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, this blend of courtroom drama and whodunit mirrors Blackmail and Sabotage in having a female murder suspect being defended by a dashing champion. Herbert Marshall is splendid as the famous thespian who questions the verdict brought against actress Norah Baring while doing jury duty. Their roles were taken by Alfred Abel and Olga Tschechowa when Hitch remade the film as Mary for Süd-Film in Berlin. But the British version made a little screen history, as the scene in which Marshall ponders the case while shaving contains the first interior monologue.

  • The Skin Game (1931)

    1h 20min

    Having starred in both the original 1920 West End production of John Galsworthy's play and BE Doxat-Pratt's 1921 Anglo-Dutch silent screen adaptation, Edmund Gwenn and Helen Haye must have relished locking horns once again, as the nouveau-riche industrialist reneging on a deal to protect the tenants of the Lancashire plot he has purchased from an impoverished toff and as the blue-blooded wife who discovers that the interloper's daughter-in-law is a former prostitute. Despite being a huge admirer of Galsworthy, Hitchcock found himself hemmed in by the terms of the author's contract with BIP and opted to shoot some scenes with multiple cameras to add a little visual intrigue.

  • Rich and Strange (1931)

    1h 23min

    Anticipating another comedy of marital manners, Mr & Mrs Smith (1941), this parable about being careful what you wish for was adapted from a novel by Don Collins. Yet Hitchcock insisted that Henry Kendall and Joan Barry's ill-starred world tour was inspired by his own honeymoon with Alma. They shared the writing credit and clearly relished slipping in references to William Shakespeare's The Tempest, as Kendall and Barry fall for fellow passengers Betty Amann and Percy Marmont aboard a liner heading into choppy waters. The opening silent sequence of Kendall's homeward commute in the rain is superbly choreographed and recalls the equally striking umbrella sequence in Foreign Correspondent (1940).

  • Number 17 (1932) Number Seventeen

    1h 1min

    This peculiar thriller is best known for introducing that trademark Hitchcock gambit, the MacGuffin. The device that sets the plot in motion is a stolen necklace. But Hitchcock was so uninspired by J. Jefferson Farjeon's play (which had been filmed by Géza von Bolváry in 1928) that he used the story of a tramp allying with a detective to outwit a gang of crooks to lampoon the conventions of the genre. He also mocked the 'old dark house' scenario and made such obvious use of models in the climactic chase between a bus and a locomotive that he appears to have been aiming for laughs as much as thrills.

  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

    1h 12min

    Having signed a five-year deal with Gaumont-British, Hitchcock hit his stride with this tale of everyday terror that was supposedly inspired by his 1927 honeymoon to St Moritz. The initial Swiss setting soon switches to an unfamiliar London of sinister backstreets, however, as Leslie Banks and Edna Best search for their kidnapped daughter. In his first English-speaking role, Peter Lorre thoroughly merits his billing as 'Public Enemy No.1 of All the World'. But the fascination lies in the fact that Best's Olympic clay pigeon-shooting champion is markedly more proactive than Banks, whereas James Stewart and Doris Day assumed more traditional hero-heroine roles in the 1956 colour remake.

  • 39 Steps (1935)

    1h 26min

    Little of John Buchan's source novel remains in this wittily thrilling adaptation by Charles Bennett, who invented the handcuffed heroine played by Madeleine Carroll, who typified the cool blonde who would become a Hitchcock fixture. Yet, this interpretation would go on to influence the remakes starring Kenneth More (1959) and Robert Powell (1978), although neither quite matches Robert Donat's charismatic turn as Richard Hannay, as he pursues a nest of spies after a dead body turns up in his London flat. The famous match cut between his landlady's scream and the steam engine transporting Donat to Scotland was one of many ingenious touches that catapulted Hitchcock to international celebrity.

  • Secret Agent (1936)

    1h 22min

    Such was the delicacy of the European situation in the mid-1930s that British film-makers were urged not to attribute specific nationalities to their villains. However, there's little doubt that John Gielgud's foe is Germanic in this morally complex adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's 'Ashenden' stories. Reluctantly recruited to track down an enemy agent in neutral Switzerland during the Great War, Gielgud's soldier novelist is anything but a natural hero and, once again, Hitchcock made his heroine (Madeleine Carroll) the more resourceful member of the partnership. Returning as a ruthless Mexican assassin, Peter Lorre features in the two best scenes, in a church organ loft and on an Alpine hillside.

  • 39 Steps / Sabotage (1936)

    2h 36min

    In Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel, The Secret Agent, Tsarist spies attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory. In Sabotage, with war clouds gathering, Hitchcock and screenwriter Charles Bennett blurred the origins of the dastards coercing East End cinema owner Oscar Homolka into planting a bomb at Piccadilly Tube station. While wishing he had been able to cast Peter Lorre as the villain and Robert Donat as the undercover cop on his trail, Hitchcock also bitterly regretted having Homolka's adolescent brother-in-law carry the device, although Donald Tester's fateful dawdle across London is excruciatingly tense. Moreover, the sequence in which sister Sylvia Sidney watches a Disney cartoon after his demise is quietly devastating.

  • Young and Innocent (1937) The Girl Was Young

    1h 19min

    Hitchcock was forever pinning crimes on the 'wrong man'. Here, the fugitive is unproduced screenwriter Derrick de Marney, who is charged with a clifftop killing and has to team with police inspector's daughter Nova Pilbeam to catch the real culprit. The brilliant climactic dolly shot was one of several refinements that Hitchcock made to Josephine Tey's novel, A Shilling For Candles, as he played up notions of disguise and visual impairment, while also emphasising the playful nature of De Marney's burgeoning romance with Pilbeam, which anticipates Cary Grant's liaisons with Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955) and Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest (1959).

  • The Lady Vanishes (1938)

    Play trailer
    1h 32min

    Romance further flourishes in the face of adversity in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's amusingly tense take on Ethel Lina White's tale, The Wheel Spins. Margaret Lockwood and the debuting Michael Redgrave make a sparkling team, as they scour an express crossing the Central European state of Bandrika for the little old lady who has inexplicably disappeared from Lockwood's compartment. They are matched by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, as the cricket-mad Charters and Caldicott. But the suspense is not entirely escapist, as Hitchcock conveys the sombre mood of the continent and the lengths to which a dangerous foe was prepared to go to achieve its aims.

  • Under Capricorn (1949)

    1h 57min

    Hitchcock ventured into the past for the third and last time with this adaptation of a James Birdie play that the Scot had based on a novel by Helen Simpson, the co-author of the book that had inspired Murder! Set in Australia in 1831, the action contained elements of both Rebecca and Notorious, as Ingrid Bergman's neglected wife is targeted by scheming housemaid Margaret Leighton so that she can ensnare her master, Joseph Cotten. Striking electricians and bad weather hampered the Elstree shoot, while Hitchcock and producer Sidney Bernstein had a long-distance falling out during editing. But the melodrama simmers nicely, while Jack Cardiff's Technicolor photography is glorious.

  • Stage Fright (1950)

    1h 45min

    Partly inspired by the 1920s Thompson-Bywaters murder case, Selwyn Jepson's 1948 novel, Man Running, allowed Hitchcock to revisit the theme of actorly artifice that he had explored in Murder! However, he was also keen to discuss the shell-shocked Britain's new role on the world stage and the notion that everyone is a player in their own daily drama. As his daughter, Patricia, was at RADA during the shoot, Hitch fondly pokes fun at thespian aspiration in allowing Jane Wyman's impersonation of a Cockney maid to flirt with amdram excess, as she seeks to discover whether ageing star Marlene Dietrich murdered her husband and implicated Wyman's dream man, Richard Todd.

  • Frenzy (1972)

    Play trailer
    1h 51min

    Working in Blighty for the final time, the 73 year-old Hitchcock returned to his roots for this adaptation of Arthur LaBern's novel, Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. As a greengrocer's son, Hitch would have been familiar with the Covent Garden environs being stalked by the Necktie Murderer and he ditches the Swinging London image to present the city as a place of decline, decay and despair. Copper Alex McCowen provides some gallows humour, but Hitchcock and screenwriter Anthony Schaeffer exploited the relaxation of the rules relating to the depiction of sex and violence to present a graphic summation of the themes and stylistic traits that had characterised Hitchcock's career.

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