Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Carl Brisson, Lillian Hall-Davis, Ian Hunter, Forrester Harvey, Harry Terry, Gordon Harker, Malcolm Keen, Anny Ondra, Randle Ayrton, Clare Greet, Herbert Marshall, Norah Baring, Phyllis Konstam, Edward Chapman, Miles Mander, Esme Percy, Donald Calthrop, Una O'Connor, Edmund Gwenn, Henry Kendall, Joan Barry, Percy Marmont, Betty Amann, Elsie Randolph
Written by: Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Val Valentine, Walter C. Mycroft, Eliot Stannard
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 444
Date: 03/18/2013
IMDB

Alfred Hitchcock 3-Disc Collector's Edition (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Rich, Strange Early Works from Hitch

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Practically every film from Alfred Hitchcock's American period has been released in clean, professional-looking DVDs, and some of them have even been painstakingly restored from scratch. But for some reason, his early British films, made before 1940, have fallen into the public domain. Most of them are available in cheap, washed-out, blurry, muddy videos and DVDs. The Criterion Collection long ago rescued The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), and finally five more of them join the list. I don't know how this happened, but somehow the rights to these films fell into the hands of the French company Studio Canal, and distributed on DVD by Lionsgate, but best not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The first, three-disc collection comes with five films, albeit five rather minor ones. None of them even begin to showcase the master's spinetingling suspense skills, but they do reveal why he was considered one of England's top directors.

The set begins with two classics from the silent era. Based on an original scenario by Hitchcock and his new wife Alma Reville, The Ring (1927) tells a fairly standard issue love triangle between a carnival boxer, 'One-Round' Jack Sander (Carl Brisson), his girlfriend in the ticket booth, Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis), and a professional fighter, Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Corby enters the carnival ring with Sander and gives him a run for his money. Hitchcock shows the battered, grimy "Round One" placard being replaced for the first time with the shiny, new "Round Two" placard. Corby gives Sander a job as a sparring partner, but also puts the moves on Mabel. Sander decides to climb the pro boxing ranks to win his girl back. Hitch makes amusing use of space, such as Mabel watching the fight from a flap in the tent, or by diverting our attention with the action outside the ring.

Based on a novel by Hall Caine, The Manxman (1929) is another, very similar love triangle, but more logical and more deeply-felt. This time, a poor fisherman, Pete (Carl Brisson again) and his best friend, a well-off lawyer, Philip (Malcolm Keen), both love a barmaid, Kate (Anny Ondra). Pete sails off to make his fortune, but makes Kate promise to wait for him. When he is falsely reported dead, Philip and Kate begin a torrid love affair. But Pete turns up again and Kate must keep her promise. The actress Ondra has a luminous, dazzling face and may well have been the first of Hitchcock's famous "blondes." Hitch's camera clearly adores her.

Disc two brings us to Murder! (1930), which is perhaps the most typical Hitchcock movie in the bunch. Hitchcock more or less wrote it off as a whodunit that focuses mainly on a conclusion rather than on the process, but he still imbues it with some amazing touches. It takes place in the theater world. An actress is bludgeoned to death with a fireplace poker and another actress -- who can't remember what happened -- takes the blame. Herbert Marshall plays Sir John, a famous, cultured actor who tries to solve the case, and Norah Baring plays the accused. Una O'Connor, best known for her roles in James Whale's horror films, also stars. It was based on a novel, "Enter Sir John," by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson.

I didn't watch the fourth feature, The Skin Game (1931), which is roundly considered one of Hitchcock's worst films. The source material, John Galsworthy's prestigious play, might have boosted the director's critical standing, but he couldn't figure out what to do with it other than to film long passages of dialogue. Even Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, in their great book "Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films," couldn't find anything nice to say about it other than: "let us rescue from this dusty The Skin Game an amusing auction scene and a very beautiful shot in the last reel -- and then let's pass over it as a film unworthy of its auteur." Edmund Gwenn, whom Hitchcock would work with again years later on The Trouble with Harry, stars.

Finally, we have Rich and Strange (1931), a film very worthy of its title, and based on a novel by Dale Collins. A working class London couple, Fred (Henry Kendall) and Emily Hill (Joan Barry) suddenly inherit enough money to go traveling and experience life. While Fred lies seasick in his cabin, Emily meets the dashing Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), and while her guard is down, Fred meets the enchanting "Princess" (Betty Amann). The story never goes precisely where you might expect, and Hitchcock guides it along effortlessly, avoiding the heavy-handed approach that might have accompanied this material. It contains several gorgeous shots, such as the all-silent opening montage, demonstrating the working class at rush hour (Fred is the only worker bee who can't open his umbrella). In another, Emily and the Commander take a private stroll to the lower decks of their cruise ship; Hitch focuses on her elegant gown as it sweeps over oily chains and ropes, while the music changes from a proper waltz to a bawdy drinking song.

Lionsgate's DVD set is not without its flaws, but it's a wonderful improvement over what has been available so far. Each disc gets two movies, and Rich and Strange comes with a featurette, Pure Cinema, starring Peter Bogdanovich and the other usual suspects, telling stories about Hitchcock. The biggest problem with the set is that it advertises Spanish and English subtitles on the box, but actually only comes with Spanish. These early sound features, with their creaky audio tracks and British accents, desperately need all the help they can get, so this is a major oversight. However, I was able to adjust the closed-captioning on my TV set, which provided a makeshift solution. In future box sets, I hope Lionsgate corrects this mistake.

Hopefully we can look forward to the other titles in desperate need of restoration: The Lodger (1926), Easy Virtue (1927), The Farmer's Wife (1928), Champagne (1928), Blackmail (1929) -- both silent and sound versions, Juno and the Paycock (1930), Number Seventeen (1932), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936) and Young and Innocent (1937).