Monday, 2 March 2009

Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock


The British comedian Paul Merton isn’t exactly renowned as a film critic, but I found his BBC 4 documentary about the films that Alfred Hitchcock made in the UK to be eminently watchable. I’m a long-time admirer of the Master of Suspense, and I wasn’t sure about how Merton would tackle the subject, but a love of humour unites the two men and Merton’s analysis was amiable and interesting in its focus on some of Hitch’s less celebrated films (many of which I must admit I’ve never seen.)

Hitch was seen explaining that he only ever filmed one ‘whodunit’, because he didn’t find it satisfactory to have his audiences concentratiing on the solution to a puzzle, rather than on emotional engagement with the characters. I think he had in mind some of the highly cerebral detective stories of the Golden Age (step forward Ronald Knox?) but I’d take issue with the suggestion that all whodunits of the past, let alone the present, lack an emotional pull.

However, there’s no doubt that the key to Hitchcock’s genius is his ability to involve viewer in the build-up of suspense. So often we know something that the protagonist does not. I was interested by his statement that he erred in Sabotage (one of the movies I haven’t seen) by having the bomb actually go off and kill someone, rather than being discovered in the nick of time. Among the other films mentioned was Young and Innocent – I own an omnibus DVD which includes this one, but have never got round to watching it, perhaps because the title put me off. I ought to give it a chance.

Hitch’s use of dramatic settings for climatic scenes was emphasised, as was his range of camera tricks and techniques. I learned that many of his early ‘talkies’ were based on stage plays, until his career took a leap forward with the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Among the movies that this programme has encouraged me to seek out is his first ‘talkie’, Blackmail. And the witty script made it good viewing for its own sake.

9 comments:

Philip said...

That title was decidedly offputting for me also, Martin, but I did watch it -- not top-drawer Hitchcock, certainly, and very much of its time, but good stuff taken on its own terms. The funny thing about this one is that it's based on Josephine Tey's A Shilling for Candles and, that being one bad crime novel, and Hitchcock being a savvy chap, he ditched most of the book, including Tey's Alan Grant, and by then focusing on the battle to prove innocence and budding romance at the heart of it produced something akin to The 39 Steps.

Martin Edwards said...

Doh! I never realised it was based on the Tey novel. How could I have overlooked that?! Thanks very much for pointing it out, Philip. I admire Tey a lot, and although A Shilling for Candles is not her best work, I really must check out the film.

vegetableduck said...

"Young and Innocent" is a very good film (I wish a restored version were available). Yes, it's supposedly "based on" "A Shilling for Candles," but that would account for about 1% of the actual film story, lol.

Hitchcock chages the story from detective fiction to chase and pursuit and that works well on film, but I think many would take issue with the assertion that A Shilling for Candles is "One bad crime novel."

Martin Edwards said...

Right, Curt. I'm definitely persuaded to watch this one soon!

Philip said...

There's no doubt that some would take issue with it, of course. My historical confrere Robin Winks put two Teys on his list of favourite crime fiction:the splendid Daughter of Time, as one might expect, and Shilling for Candles, which astonished me, for I should think it clearly the weakest of her books: The Man in the Queue of seven years earlier was, I think, an auspicious debut, and then we have Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair, The Singing Sands...all very fine, whereas Tey seemed to throw all but the proverbial sink into Candles, culminating in one of the weakest endings I can recollect. But -- her characterization is still a cut above, and chacun a son gout anyway.

Martin Edwards said...

It's a long time since I read Shiliing, but I vaguely recall that the solution irritated me. I haven't read The Man in the Queue, but liked the others.

David Cranmer said...

I've read Hitchcock's take on SABOTAGE before and I disagree with the master. The fact that the bomb goes off is so unexpected for an old film that it gives it a realistic edge. Then again, who am I to disagree with Sir Alfred:)

Martin Edwards said...

David, I too was rather surprised by the fact that Hitchcock regretted that scene. In the very brief clip I saw, it was certainly dramatic. I look forward to watching it in the context of the whole movie.

vegetableduck said...

I think Hitchcock recognized that "killing the kid" was a box office disaster. I thought it made the film tragic and moving. The villain's reaction makes him truly odious.