So now, we’re going to plough through his considerable resumé and try to pinpoint some of his best films. Frankly, you could put his titles on a dart board, throw a dart with your eyes closed and pretty much guarantee to hit a stone cold classic; you could focus on his silent work and find six excellent titles, you could limit yourself to the 1930’s in the UK, or focus on his sensationally productive decade in Hollywood from the early 1950’s to the early 1960’s. I’ve tried to mix in a bit of everything. See what you think.
1. The 39 Steps
Remade repeatedly since Hitchcock’s definitive adaptation of John Buchan’s novel and now also a highly successful West End stage play, The 39 Steps in many ways distilled relatively early on what would become defining tropes for Hitchcock.
In actuality, The 39 Steps is a first rate example of just one type of film Hitchcock would make, but it was a type he returned to many times – a protagonist on the run, wrongly accused, a MacGuffin to drive the narrative forward (The 39 Steps) and sparky repartee between leading man and leading lady. North By Northwest is the most obvious reference point from Hitchcock’s later career, but The 39 Steps more than deserves to be considered in the same breath as that subsequent classic.
The banter sparkles, the meaning and significance of the eponymous Steps intrigues and although the tone makes it clear throughout that our protagonist (Robert Donat of Goodbye, Mr Chips fame) is in genuine peril, it remains a relatively and quite rightly fleet-footed and light-hearted caper. Hitch was more than capable of lacing his films with menace, darkness and psychological complexity, but he likewise knew when to take things in a different direction, as he does here to superlative effect. One of his genuinely great pre-Hollywood efforts.
Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers is a character for the ages – mysterious, dangerous, finally unhinged – with the far more measured Laurence Olivier providing a helpful counterweight. In the middle is the excellent work by Joan Fontaine as Olivier’s new Mrs de Winter, haunted by the spectre of the previous Mrs de Winter, so much favoured by Mrs Danvers. The performance could easily have become overwrought as Mrs de Winter is oppressed and almost suffocated by the weight of the memory of her predecessor, but she remains sympathetic and affecting.
The tone is gothic and oppressive, with Mr de Winter’s melancholy giving way to a more general and pervasive atmosphere of danger and dread as we begin to fear with Mrs de Winter as to what Mrs Danvers might be capable of. In the end, the whole affair reaches a grand and spectacular conclusion, both thrilling and fitting. Hitchcock, as always, deserves masses of credit for balancing the very different performances and gradual tonal shift, keeping the whole film believable and engaging. Excellent.