Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema, and you don’t have to be a film buff to know about films like North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), or The Birds (1963). These films are so well-made and adhere so closely to familiar Hollywood conventions that they can be enjoyed simply as films, the same way you might watch a current film at the local multiplex. Of course, Hitchcock didn’t arrive at that sense of mastery immediately—by the time he made his first American film, Rebecca (1940), he had already directed about 30 films in Britain, and worked on significantly more in other roles including writer, assistant director, and art designer.
Some of Hitchcock’s British films, like his first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935) have been available for home viewing for years, while others are considered lost, with no known surviving versions. Between those two poles, many more of his early films have been basically unavailable for years, or available only in poor-quality DVDs or VOD versions that don’t give you a real sense of what audiences saw when the films were new. Thanks to a new Blu-ray set from Kino Lorber, five more films from Hitchcock’s British years are available for home viewing in reasonable to excellent versions: The Ring (1927), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Champagne (1928), The Manxman (1929), and The Skin Game (1931). The first four are silent, and have been provided with musical soundtracks, while The Skin Game is a talkie.
None of these films are masterpieces by the standard of Hitchcock’s later works, but they provide important context for anyone interested in the development of his style, while also providing interesting little snapshots of British life and social customs of the time. The Ring is the best film in this collection, displaying Hitchcock’s refusal to settle for first-choice shots when something more meaningful is possible. The story is a standard love triangle, with Nelly (Lillian Hall Davis) sought after by two prizefighters, Jack Saunders (Carl Brisson) and Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). The title obviously refers to a boxing ring, but also to a wedding ring, and there’s a remarkable number of ring-shaped objects on screen in this film, from the bass drum of the opening shot to a snake bracelet that plays such a significant role in the story that it really should get a line in the credits. Hitchcock’s visual storytelling chops are on full display in this film, and one montage sequence so impressed contemporary audiences that it received a round of applause at the film’s premiere.
The story of Champagne is pretty slight—a spoiled rich girl (Betty Balfour, known as “the British Mary Pickford,” although in this film she looks more like Betty Boop) gets taught a lesson by her father—but once again Hitchcock goes the extra mile to make the film’s visuals special. There’s also some interesting content that hints at more than it says, presumably as an effort to evade censorship, so those who enjoy reading between the lines will have a chance to exercise their skills on this film. The opening shot is an extreme closeup of a champagne cork, which is popped directly at the camera, after which point we see scenes from a lively party shot though the bottom of a champagne glass. It’s a brilliant shot, echoed at the end of the film, and of course is a practical effect—Farran Smith Nehme’s commentary informs us that it was made by constructing a gigantic champagne glass with a camera lens in the bottom.
The Farmer’s Wife is a standard-issue comedy, adapted from an Eden Phillpotts play, about a middle-aged farmer (Jameson Thomas) and recent widower who seeks a new wife. It’s actually pretty funny, with most of the humor coming from the visuals rather than the relatively sparse intertitles, as the farmer entertains a succession of wrong candidates before finding the right one (who was right there all along, of course).
The Manxman, Hitchcock’s last silent film, revolves around a love triangle set on the Isle of Man, where Peter Christian (Carl Brisson again) and Philip Quilian (Malcolm Keen) are both in love with Kate (Anny Ondra). Peter, having obtained the favor of Kate’s father, leaves for Africa to earn enough money to marry Kate, while Philip stays at home to take up the position of deemster (judge) on the island. No one thinks to remark that Peter is actually going to steal the wealth of another land and its people, so ingrained were assumptions of the rightness of British colonialism at the time. When news of Peter’s death reaches the island, Philip takes that as a sign that he should go ahead and propose to Kate—or actually to do something that might better have been reserved until after the wedding. Then Peter shows up, marries Kate, and guess whose baby is growing in her belly? And when a distraught Kate tries to kill herself, which is considered a crime, guess which judge she is brought before? Despite the sometimes groanworthy plot, The Manxman is not without its charms, primarily in terms of cinematographer Jack Cox’s evocation of the island setting.
The Skin Game, adapted from John Galsworthy play, is a sound film, and the change in terms of what the camera could do and how it could move are immediately evident. The screenplay (by Hitchcock and his wife Alma Reville) sticks very close to the Galsworthy play, but perhaps we shouldn’t complain too loudly about that—this was a studio assignment, and then as now one function of the cinema was to bring popular plays to a wide audience. The story involves two feuding families, one old money (led by C.V. France) and one nouveau riche (led by Edmund Gwenn), and brings up Downton Abbey-like issues about preserving the old ways versus joining the modern world. Of course someone has a hidden secret (one thing you may learn from films like these is how absolutely acceptable this type of plot device was to audiences of the time) whose revelation brings about a reversal in the power relationships. It’s surprising from a contemporary point of view how much Galsworthy stacked the deck, and in what direction, but that’s something you have to take in the spirit of the time in which the play and film were made. | Sarah Boslaugh
Hitchcock: British International Pictures is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. The silent films are provided with scores by Meg Morley (The Ring), John Mirsalis (The Farmer’s Wife), Ben Model (Champagne), and Andrew Earle Simpson (The Manxman). Other extras include commentaries by Nick Pinkerton (The Ring) and Farran Smith Nehme (Champagne andThe Manxman), and clips from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews relevant to these films.