Many who see the American films of Alfred Hitchcock believe it is the technique of a master European filmmaker at work. Only a small number of these moviegoers have admitted even seeing his early British films, not realizing a great deal of these works from England are not psychological thrillers in the same way his later American films were. Most of Hitchcock’s British work involve straight drama or melodrama in his early films, leading to a suspenseful climax within the last thirty minutes of the film, with only minor tinges of suspense here or there beforehand. These same films also do not have the fancy camera and editing techniques he would later use after coming to the United States.
Two examples of these first attempts at suspense in England would be two Hitchcock films entitled The Lady Vanishes and Sabotage. Both follow the path of a basic domestic drama with The Lady Vanishes ending with a shootout on a train after a middle aged woman is taken hostage. Sabotage ends with a woman working at a movie theater killing her husband after finding out he planted a bomb in a package of film cans her little brother took on a bus to deliver them to the theater she worked at and ended up getting killed.
However, a tiny exception to these early British films would Hitchcock’s first film made with sound, the 1929 film Blackmail in which the main character is a 1920’s London socialite who takes a piano player back to her room and tries to make a sexual play for her while she undresses behind a curtain before she pulls out a knife and stabs him to death. This pivotal scene is followed by a silent montage of her walking the streets of London on the way to see her parents, agonizing over the murder she just committed. There’s even a scene of her walking down a staircase similar to the one Jimmy Stewart would later walk down in Vertigo.
Two of his other British films Murder and The 39 Steps even treat the themes of murder and mistaken identity in a different way from his later American works. Murder starts with a woman committing murder, but a good chunk of it deals with the jury’s deliberation over whether or not to find her guilty along with the decision’s aftermath. The 39 Steps is a drama where a man is mistaken fora government agent involving a couple of chases, and discover in the end The 39 Steps is a secret government agency.
His American films on the other hand demonstrate suspense during the first ten to twenty minutes of the film, maybe reaching a turning point at the first thirty minutes with more suspense added on every ten minutes thereafter with another turning point at the hour, and more suspenseful elements being revealing at each ten minute interval until the twist ending. Many Hitchcock enthusiasts do not realize these basic differences between these two periods of his career.
Shadow of A Doubt was the first Hitchcock film to deal with American life and American themes involving a murderer named Charlie Oakley who comes to live with his sister’s family in suburban Santa Rosa, California which includes his niece, also named ”Charlie”. This family is portrayed as the portrait of the typical middle class family at the time in contrast with his dark portrayal as a murderer. Also apparent is the dual role of Charlie of being the wonderful uncle and the murderer with the dark secret.
Rope is about two ivy league college graduates who murder a former classmate just for the hell of it, to see how it would feel. They hold a party for friends while hiding the body inside the trunk where they place the food and candles on. The film is almost entirely shot in one room, with bright lighting in the beginning for scenes in the day, golden hued lightning in the middle for scenes at dusk, and dark lightning at the end for scenes at night. This is also the first film where Hitchcock cast Hollywood star Jimmy Stewart.
Rear Window once again pairs Hitchcock with Stewart who plays photographer L.B. Jeffries, a wheelchair bound character with a broken leg. He becomes obsessed with watching his neighbors in the apartment across the street and the routines of their daily lives. One day, he spots a gray haired man with glasses murdering his wife while watching through the window with the aid of binoculars. He watches the murderer every night to see what kind of move he is going to make. He gets his girlfriend (played by Grace Kelly) to be a lookout when he breaks into the murderer’s house and tries to catch him.
Psycho is the landmark which features Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, a woman who embezzles money from the bank she works at, and drives to a motel where she meets Norman Bates, a lonely boy next door type who has to take care of his invalid mother, then goes to her room to take a shower before she turns in for the night. Then she stabbed to death by ”Mother” while in the shower, only to learn it was later Norman himself during an investigation which leads to his capture, and placement in a mental institution.
North by Northwest is said to be the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, and the American 39 Steps. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a man mistaken for a government agent named George Kaplan leading him on a chase which reaches a new element every ten minutes leading to a climax at Mount Rushmore. This film also includes the iconic scene where Cary Grant ducks the crop duster in the field. North by Northwest remains one of the few Hitchcock films which was an original Hitchcock creation, and not based on a short story, novel, or a stage play.
Many Hitchcock fans consider the ultimate comparison between his British films and his American films to be The Man Who Knew Too Much, the original British version made in 1934 with the American version later made in 1956. There are a good number of similarities and differences between both films, the plot points and the essential frame work of both films are the same, but the styles and approaches are quite different. The British version was filmed in black and white on a low budget while the American version was a Hollywood studio film starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.
The original starts with a British couple on a ski trip in Switzerland with their young daughter, and meet two characters who have pivotal roles in the film. One has a dance with the wife at a party, and gets shot dies after whispering a government plot in her revealing he is a secret agent. The next thing they know, their daughter has been kidnapped, with the husband and a friend of his getting a lead to an area church, and his friend going outside to telephone police. The wife is treated much like a secondary character until the climax of the film.
It is revealed the person who snatched their daughter turns out to be the other man they met on the ski trip, and the wife learns someone is supposed to get shot at The Royal Albert Hall in London. She and her husband go to London with their friend in tow with her keeping an eye out for the assassination plot at Royal Albert Hall while he and the friend look for the daughter. When the wife spots the gun from a distance appearing from behind a curtain, she screams at the top her lungs with the shooter getting apprehended and the victim only receiving a minor injury. The husband then shoots the kidnapper and the couple is back with their daughter in a somber ending.
The remake involves an American couple on vacation with their little boy riding in a bus to Marrakesh under the hot sun where they meet Frenchman along with a couple speaking French when they get off the bus, to discover they are a nice British couple showing them around and describing the local customs. They go back to the Frenchman’s hotel room one night when a strange man knocks on the door asking for the couple, mistaking them for someone else.
They spend the next day with the British couple, when all of a sudden the Frenchman is stabbed in the back and whispers a government secret in the husband’s ear before dying. The next thing they know, their son has been kidnapped, and the nice British couple has checked out of the hotel. The husband confronts an animal trainer named Ambrose Chapel who they believe is a person, from what the dying Frenchman told them.
They discover it is a church and realize the British couple is on the kidnapping with the wife going out to call the police. They get a tip about a pending assassination attempt at The Royal Albert Hall in London. She keeps an eye out while he looks for their son, and it is revealed they met at the door was the ringleader of the kidnapping and assassination. She screams while spotting the gun behind the curtain with the victim getting shot in the arm, and him locating their son which leads to a more abrupt and upbeat ending.