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Week 19: 'Sabotage' [1936]
Source: Amazon Video, Criterion edition [streaming]

The lights go out in London. Sand is discovered in some vital part of the main generator. Sabotage!

This is a lesser Hitchcock thriller, but even his lesser films offer entertainment. Several threads from earlier films come together here in a film in which the parts are better than the whole. A suspicious foreigner, owner of a local cinema, has shady dealings with Higher-Ups intent on causing mayhem in the capital city - possibly to divert attention from an inevitable war or, in the words of Alfred Pennyworth, because "some men just want to watch the world burn." The aforementioned deliberate blackout that starts the film isn't enough, however, to dampen Londoners pre-Blitz spirit, and so the ante is raised. A bomb is procured. But can the erstwhile cinema owner go through with the deed?

When this film works, it works very well. The delivery of the bomb, via an unsuspecting carrier, is appropriately suspenseful, even if Hitchcock later believed he bungled the payoff (he felt the necessary death it inflicts lost him his audience at this point). There are a couple of flourishes - the bomber envisions a melting facade of Piccadilly Circus within the frame of an aquarium; the face of one of the dead bomb victims pops up randomly in a crowd scene; and there is a particularly effective shot near the end from floor level. But what I mostly saw in the direction was how precise and effortless it seemed. It may be a minor work, but Hitchcock tells it concisely and with confidence.

The acting is disappointing; this is a grittier tale, but the leads are uninspiring, especially Sylvia Sidney who appears to be half-asleep. (There was no mutual love between the leading actress and her director, apparently.) The ending harkens a little to that of 'Blackmail', in which the police detective wants to shield his love interest from any criminal proceedings, and there is a nice throwaway line by his superior at the very end. Hitchcock also takes us backstage again, as he did in earlier films, though this time it's his own medium of the cinema rather than the theatre. (The reason for the shout-out to Walt Disney in the opening credits is a short scene that must have tickled Hitchcock no end when he saw how well it fit.) On the whole, I can't say I felt I wasted my 76 minutes, however damning by faint praise that may seem.

I watched the Criterion edition on Amazon Video, and I was a little disappointed in it. Certainly not their best work but, as I have no comparison to go from, no doubt still better than any other. The picture flared and faded in parts and generally showed its age. Background hiss was minimal and non-distracting.
A little late to the party, but I watched The Secret Agent the other day. 

I actually really enjoyed it. Certainly not one of the stronger Hitchcock movies, but pretty solid. Simple story, engaging characters, satisfying (if predictable) twist.
Peter Lorre certainly overdoes his role, but I loved it none the less and he often had me laughing.

I didn't find anything massively striking in the film in terms of Hitchcockian visuals, but the scene in the church was eery and well staged. The mountaintop murder was also a well shot scene that I appreciated, even though I didn't find it drawing me in on an emotional level. 

I watched a DVD copy from the "Hitchcock: The British Years" collection. Terrible video and audio, and no subtitles.
BONUS: 'The Secret Agent' [1996]
Source: DVD

After taking a series of stories called 'Ashenden' by Somerset Maugham and turning them into the film 'Secret Agent', Hitchcock took the book 'The Secret Agent' by Joseph Conrad and turned it into the film 'Sabotage' (not to be confused with 'Saboteur', which I haven't got to yet.). Got that? Here, then, is a (seemingly) faithful 1990s adaptation of the original book, starring and produced by Bob Hoskins.

If it is as faithful to its source material as other reviews would have me believe, then it is interesting to note what Hitchcock retained, what he discarded and what he added. The most obvious is the setting, which is 1880s London as opposed to the contemporary 1930s that Hitchcock chose. The main characters retain their names, but here Mr. Verloc is a purveyor of smutty pictures in Soho, rather than a slightly more respectable cinema owner. (As I recall, in Hitchcock's version one reason for Mr. Verloc to be investigated by the police is that he may be showing adult material.) The bomb stays but a love triangle that includes the police officer is a Hitchcock invention. 

Taken on its own, the film has a lot going for it. The cast is fantastic. Bob Hoskins doesn't really extend his usual range but is still very good. Christian Bale is the young brother-in-law - mentally-challenged rather than annoyingly chipper, as Hitchcock would have him - and just about holds his own in a role that could have been overwrought. Robin Williams shows how good he could be given the right dramatic roles. He is taut ball of anger - sadistic and cynical - but is unfortunately only given what amounts to a couple of extended cameos. Patricia Arquette wields an unplaceable accent but is otherwise fine. Only Eddie Izzard is miscast as a Russian Ambassador, who seems to think he is in a different film altogether and plays it as parody. Other excellent actors that shine here include Gerard Depardieu, Jim Broadbent, Elizabeth Spriggs and Peter Vaughn.

Whereas Hitchcock played the planting of the bomb as suspense, here the consequences of the attack are given more time (the run-up is shown instead in a series of flashbacks). The endings are similar in one major way, but this version stretches it further than it needs to, with more flashbacks, although the final scene is perfect, giving us more Williams.

This is not an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Perhaps 'ponderous' is a more charitable adjective than 'slow', as I did enjoy this. The production of the setting is wonderful, and the ensemble acting is, overall, excellent. The version I saw was one of those old flipper DVDs, with widescreen and full-screen versions on either side. I chose the former and was not disappointed.
I can recommend the 2016 BBC adaptation of 'The Secret Agent' with Toby Jones. It's on Netflix and physical formats. Set in Victorian London but very much plays up the parallels to modern "Terror Cells".  There is also a 1992 one from the BBC with Peter Capaldi and David Suchet but I've not seen it.
Week 20: 'Young and Innocent' [1937]
Source: Amazon Video, Criterion edition [streaming]

I had never heard of this film before starting this project, so why did I get a feeling of deja vu when watching it? Probably because it is eerily similar to Hitchcock's superior earlier film 'The 39 Steps'.

A woman washes up dead on a beach; the belt of a raincoat, used to strangle her, floats nearby. A man (later discovered to be an acquaintance and a beneficiary in her will) is witnessed leaving the scene, on the pretext of summoning help. When questioned, he claims to have had his raincoat recently stolen - a likely story! He goes on the run to clear his name, reluctantly partnered with the Chief of Police's daughter, in order to track down... his raincoat.

Yes, the story is another preposterous one, but of course none of that matters. Can Hitchcock pull off another man-on-the-run caper? Yes, just. The leads are engaging and the banter witty enough to keep you rooting for them. The use of miniature sets is worth noting - very effective when used for quick cuts, less so when the camera lingers too long. But the highlight is the long take in a crowded ballroom, as the camera pans to the real killer. The wide shot to extreme close-up is excellent and hardy loses focus.

The film drags a little when the pursued pair are waylaid at a little girl's birthday party - the film doesn't so much take a breather as take a nap - but there is still enough good humour in these scenes to forgive Hitch his indulgence. Worth a look.

I saw the Criterion version currently on Amazon Video. Like 'Sabotage', I didn't think it was as good as other Criterion Blu-rays I've seen, and I don't know whether this was due to the streaming or that these restorations are inferior. Nevertheless, both picture and sound are good to great in the most part.
Week 21: 'The Lady Vanishes' [1938]
Source: Criterion blu-ray

By now, it seems that Hitchcock had found his niche and was content to have fun with it. A lot of familiar elements are in place - a mismatched couple caught up in a caper, with witty repartee and foreigners and spies to boot. Add a train and some comic relief characters and you have a quintessential late 1930s Hitchcock film. That's not to downplay it in any way - 'The Lady Vanishes' is great fun - but it still doesn't do very much that's new by this stage.

Iris, a young Englishwoman on her way home from Europe to get married, is knocked on the head by a flowerpot prior to boarding a train. She is nursed by the elderly Mrs. Froy - a governess, she tells her. After a brief nap, Iris awakes to discover not only is Mrs. Froy missing, but that no one claims to have ever seen the elusive governess. Is Iris mad? Is she still suffering from the bonk on the noggin? Or is something more sinister afoot?

Unusually for Hitchcock at this time, a great deal of time is spent building up the characters before we get anywhere near figuring out the plot. It's a good half-hour before anyone boards the mystery train, although, like a good Agatha Christie novel, we have more than a carriageful of suspicious and not-so suspicious personalities to try and figure out. The most fun is had, of course, when Charters and Caldicott, the stereotypical cricket-mad proper British gentlemen, are on-screen. (I look forward to more of their antics when I watch 'Night train to Munich' tonight.) Hitchcock juggles a number of different sub-plots - such as the couple trying to keep an affair secret - which expertly ties into the main storyline, explaining why so many people claim not to know Mrs. Froy. 

There are two examples of suspense which I enjoyed. Iris and Gilbert (the only one to believe her story) sit at a table in the dining car - the same table where Mrs. Froy wrote her name on the window. Despite how obvious it is to us, the audience, Hitchcock takes his sweet time before any character is drawn to it. A similar technique is shown later, when drinks are drugged. Here we see a shot from the tabletop, taking in both the glasses and the supplier of the drug - one of the few Hitchcock flourishes to be seen. Others include the very effective use of miniatures again and back projection.

The climax is a tad heavy-handed with some typical Hitchcock nonsense involving an important tune that must be remembered verbatim, but it works because we allow it to. Like 'The 39 Steps', there is too much goodwill already accumulated and so much fun already spent to bother with picking holes in the plot.

I watched the Criterion blu-ray and it looked very good. Only a couple of early scenes seemed a little washed-out, but that's splitting hairs, probably.
BONUS: 'Night Train to Munich' [1940]
Source: Criterion DVD

With the same scriptwriters, same leading lady, the same actors playing the same characters in a film set partly on a train featuring foreign agents, it's no wonder that 'Night Train to Munich' is regarded as a pseudo-sequel to 'The Lady Vanishes'. Like most sequels, however, it recalls a lot of the original but doesn't best it.

The film begins strangely similar to 'The Lady Vanishes'. The camera pans across a miniature landscape towards a house and into the window. (The miniatures aren't always as effective in this film, either.) Slowly we are introduced to the main players and the plot - a scientist working for the Allies is being hunted by the Nazis. Once captured, it is up to Rex Harrison to go behind enemy lines and bring him back.

The film takes even longer to board the eponymous train - nearly an hour - but with Charters and Caldicott back as passengers, it was worth the wait for me. The characters play more of a significant role in the plot, as well as providing necessary comic relief to a film that is otherwise quite stiff. Rex Harrison is fine as leading man, although I would have preferred someone a little more dynamic rather than proper. There is one element of suspense that harkens to Hitchcock, when a note is left under a doughnut (!). As the teatime snacks are passed around, we are left to wonder who will discover it first - the intended recipient or his enemy?

This is an entertaining companion piece to 'The Lady Vanishes', but definitely the lesser film. Being too cheap to buy the blu-ray, I opted to borrow the Criterion DVD from my local library. There was some background hiss in places, but the picture looked good, on the whole. I doubt seeing it in HD would have made a great deal of difference to me, considering only the mild enjoyment I got from it.
BONUS: 'Crook's Tour' [1941]
Source: Criterion blu-ray

The characters Charters & Caldicott star in their own film involving spies, secret plans and the desire to get home to watch cricket. Unfortunately, what works in small doses in other films doesn't translate so well over 80 minutes. There are a couple of good lines, but otherwise it's a disappointing use of their characters. The production is cheap, and though they traverse many exotic locales (Baghdad & Budapest, for example), there's little difference in the sets. Greta Gynt plays La Palermo, who gets to sing and dance a lot (her looks and voice reminded my wife of Garbo & Dietrich, in passing), and Caldicott's inability to remember her name throughout the film was an amusing running joke. There's a Hitchcockian MacGuffin in that the bumbling pair are mistakenly handed a gramophone record with secret plans to destroy a pipeline, or something - I admit I was nodding off before the end.

This film is included in the Criterion blu-ray of 'The Lady vanishes'. There was no discernible restoration done, but it was adequately watchable. Unless you happen to own the same blu-ray, I can't think of a good reason to hunt this one down.
BONUS: 'The Lady Vanishes' [1979]
Source: Amazon Video [streaming]

Based on the same screenplay as the 1938 original, this version is a beat-by-beat copy, even down to the same dialogue on occasions. The main characters get the most changes - Cybil Shepherd plays a gold-digging American heiress who hits her head after a drunken impersonation of Hitler, and Elliot Gould is an American photo-journalist. Everything else plays out as expected, with mixed results. Arthur Lowe and Ian Carmichael are adequate stand-ins as Charters and Caldicott, and Angela Lansbury was made for the role of Miss Froy. The (admittedly bizarre) Italian magician character is excised, and the enemy are most certainly Nazis, as opposed to generic foreign ne'er-do-wells in the pre-war original. Gould plays his role with his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout, but Shepherd is full-blown annoying. The quickfire back-and-forth with Gould foreshadows her 'Moonlighting' role, but otherwise there is nothing here to suggest that anyone would bother to help this selfish, entitled brat. (Gould does mention the fact that she isn't wearing a bra throughout the film - maybe the reason..?)

The important Tune-Which-Must-Be-Remembered-Verbatim MacGuffin is still there and even more ridiculous, as there is no attempt (that I recall) to explain why. The fact that little of substance is changed here makes me wonder why it exists at all. It's not bad, I suppose, but I can't imagine why you would want to watch this over the superior original.
BONUS: 'The Lady Vanishes' [2013]
Source: DVD

This BBC TV adaptation is supposedly more faithful to the source novel, 'The Wheel Spins'. Perhaps so, but it is certainly less fun.

Here, Iris is an independently wealthy orphan, first encountered somewhere in Europe in the 30s with her rowdy friends. (Her family, it is hinted at, may have perished in the 1918 influenza outbreak.) After her friends leave, following some tiff, she decides to travel home alone. Alas, the train is fully booked, but she bribes her way to a seat in a carriage where she is obviously not expected and certainly unwelcome. At the station, she is rendered unconscious by sunstroke (or is it something more sinister..?)

This Iris is a combination of the two we have previously seen. She is aloof and self-centered in the most part (she is not really 'befriended' by Miss Froy, and is evidently aggravated by the chatterbox), yet doggedly determined. However, it seems she is more concerned to find the elusive Miss Froy to prove her sanity rather than any genuine concern for the poor woman. Indeed, the possibility of her being 'deranged', as another passenger puts it, is forefront in this version, and no one really believes her story until the very end.

There are a few holdovers from Hitchcock's version (possibly from the source novel, too). The couple having an affair are back, and the Charters & Caldicott roles get a makeover, being played by two (unnamed) women, more concerned with their roses back in England rather than the Test Match this time. The leading man is split in two, as Iris has two accomplices in her quest - a professor and his student. Other elements are completely missing - no special Mexican tea, no writing her name on the window, no spies - Nazi or otherwise. The reason for the governess' disappearance is much more down to earth.

This version is much darker, literally - most of the story unfolds at night - and humorless. None of the acting stands out (the younger leading man is a cross between Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, I thought) and the production is fine but nothing special. In fact, 'nothing special' sort of sums this film up.
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