A-List: Unappreciated Hitchcock Films
By Sean Collier
September 2, 2008
The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps is probably the best known of Hitchcock's films before the jump to America, but it bears inclusion on an under-appreciated list for one chief reason. Playing both in London and Broadway right now is an absolutely hilarious farce adaptation of the film, full of Hitchcockian in-jokes, slapstick and melodrama. The show usually sells out, and audiences usually love it, but here's the trouble: it's way, way, WAY funnier if you've seen the movie. If you haven't, it bears viewing on its own merits – the brilliant opening Mr. Memory scene and the interplay between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll chief among them – but see the film, then find an opportunity to see the play.
While The Man Who Knew Too Much was the only film that Hitchcock made twice, he wasn't shy about borrowing set pieces and concepts from his early work to spice up his Hollywood output. Saboteur borrows liberally from The 39 Steps, chiefly in the trope of the wrongly accused man handcuffing himself to the disbelieving heroine. That works well, but the two essential scenes are a fabulous politically incorrect sequence where our heroes stow away on a train car full of circus freaks and a tense interaction with a charitable blind man. Which is to say nothing of a climax that involves hanging off of the Statue of Liberty. Saboteur is a bit uneven, but definitely worth a look.
The Trouble With Harry
While dark humor is an essential feature of the Hitchcock canon, very few of his films could be termed comedy. And, while The Trouble With Harry certainly is a light-hearted, somewhat romantic comedy, at the very least it does revolve around the mishandling of an unexpected corpse. Just so no one would be alarmed, I suppose. Sam Marlowe stars as the charming artist at the center of this comedy of errors, and a very young Shirley MacLaine co-stars. The song Marlowe sings as he walks into town will be stuck in your head for days.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The self-remade American version of this film is more widely known and much more widely seen. Hitchcock considered the later version, made in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, to be the superior of the two films; truth be told, it probably is, with some beautiful Technicolor representations of Morocco and the overuse of "Que Sera Sera." However, to ignore the 1934 version is a crime; there's a charming opening in Swiss Alps, completely with a hilariously shot skiing accident, and plenty of '30s charm to go around. Plus, it has Peter Lorre as one of the villains, speaking English on screen for the first time. Not comprehending it, though. He still didn't speak the language, so he learned the words phonetically. Which is pretty hilarious.
Strangers on a Train
I know, I know – Strangers on a Train isn't under-appreciated. It's one of the most beloved and studied Hitchcock films. Here's the trouble, though – some morons are remaking it. The retread has been trapped in development hell for years at Warner Bros, with several potential directors bailing out already; this does not give me much faith in a calm, balanced, artful remake. The script is by David Seltzer, scribe of the original Omen...but the details are not important here. These stories, good as they were, are permanently tied up in Hitchcock's eye, and mind. This is one of the many reasons why Gus Van Sant's Psycho sucked – even if you do exactly what Hitch did, you still can't come close to doing what Hitch did. They're timeless, but they're products of one director at one time. They can't be remade. I'm off on a rant here, so to bring it around to the point: if for some reason you haven't seen Strangers on a Train, make it a priority. To see some tossed-around remake without seeing the brilliant original would be a cardinal sin.