'Young and Innocent' and 'The Lady Vanishes'
Young and Innocent
If there is an unknown masterpiece among Hitchcock’s films, it has to be Young and Innocent. Its anonymity is due to a number of factors—the greater renown of his American films, the lack of major actors for the leads, and the butchered nature of prints edited for American TV under the title The Girl Was Young. Fans seeing it today for the first time with a restored print often find its lack of reputation baffling. It is one of his finest wrong man films, with a delightfully strong cast, a fine central romance, wonderful comedic moments, and a succession of great scenes. While Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney are among Hitchcock’s least know leading actors, they are both outstanding in their roles and make one of his most appealing pairings. Young and Innocent is almost without question the finest Hitchcock film that nobody knows and, along with The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, it stands among the best of all his British films.
The plot is of minor consequence. A woman is found on a beach strangled to death. The man who discovers her body not only knew her but had been named in her will and as a result is falsely accused of her murder. Escaping from the police in order to prove his innocence, he recruits the local police commissioner’s daughter in his quest. Clues take them to a diner, where a delightfully comic fight breaks out, from there to children’s birthday party (although one of the best scenes in the film, it has often been cut in TV versions). They proceed to a flop house where they find a man who can help locate the killer for them. Pursued from there by the police, they escape to an abandoned mine, where their car falls into a pit. The final segment finds them seeking the killer at a dancehall. As with many Hitchcock films, it isn’t a matter so much of what happens, as how it happens. The mastery of technique and detail from beginning to end is proof of the young Hitchcock’s command over every aspect of filmmaking.
Those who know this film will recall the great crane shot from near its end, one of the most astonishing long shots of Hitchcock’s career. The love interest of the wrong man—played by Nova Pilbeam, who played the kidnapped girl in Hitchcock’s 1934 The Man Who Knew Too Much—has gone to a music hall in search of the murderer. The only thing that we know about him is that he suffers from a severe eye twitch. The camera cuts from a shot of her and the old man who can identify the killer to a high shot over the dance floor. It slowly pans right across the length of the dance floor in a shot that lasts seventy seconds. As the camera reaches the end of the hall it slowly begins to descend towards the bandstand, where the orchestra in blackface is performing the song “The Drummer Man.” As it reaches the bandstand, the camera glides to the drummer, coming to a rest only a few inches from his eyes. After a pause in extreme close up, the eyes begin to twitch. In a career filled with extraordinary moments, it has to rank among Hitchcock’s greatest.
It is worth noting that the resolution of Young and Innocent is unusual for a Hitchcock film: the killer is discovered by sheer coincidence. If the strongest moment in the film is the long crane shot that reveals to the audience the identity of the killer, the weakest is the moment when that same identity is revealed to the other characters. That aside, this is a wonderfully entertaining film, and his most neglected masterpiece.
The Lady Vanishes
Regarded by many to be Hitchcock’s finest British film, The Lady Vanishes effectively ended his English period (the loathsome Jamaica Inn is best passed over in silence). Perpetually frustrated by the technical limitations of the British film industry, which compared poorly to Hollywood, and the shortage of first-rate British actors (many of their best performers had already left for the United States), he wanted to make more sophisticated films. It isn’t repeated as often as it should be that throughout his career (at least through The Birds) Hitchcock was always on the cutting edge of innovation in film technology. So the technical superiority of Hollywood was not a minor consideration for him. Financial opportunities also called him to Hollywood. He yearned both for greater financial rewards for himself and for bigger budgets for his films.
Which is what makes The Lady Vanishes all the more impressive. It was made on an astonishingly low budget and on the smallest stage at Islington Studios, a space less than 90 feet in length. Yet, Hitchcock made in England a film that surpassed in quality the vast majority of films made in Hollywood during the same year, despite their huge financial and technical advantages.
What Hitchcock was able to achieve on The Lady Vanishes is considerable. Despite the cramped set, Hitchcock was able to do the finest job to date in film of simulating a train journey. The sets representing the train cars shook and rattled to suggest riding the rails, with the sounds and constantly shifting light impeccably adding to the illusion. François Truffaut confessed in his famous interview with Hitchcock that he would sometimes watch The Lady Vanishes ignoring plot and characters and simply attempt to understand how all of the effects were achieved. The film displays breathtakingly effortless technique from beginning to end. Despite the tiny stage and low budget, the train scenes are in fact more convincing than in his many of his other train films such as The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.
Because of his frustrations in garnering first-rate film talent for leading roles in the depleted British film industry, Hitchcock was often forced to go with unknowns and newcomers. Luckily, in The Lady Vanishes he struck gold. Michael Redgrave had appeared in a tiny role in Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent, but here was outstanding here as the musicologist Gilbert, while Margaret Lockwood had one of the finest roles in her career as the determined and irrepressible Iris Henderson (it is hard to forget her name because of the “IH” emblazoned on nearly everything that she owns). Credit for Redgrave’s performance lies partly with his costar, the German expatriate Paul Lukas (who had been forced to flee Germany due to his liberal politics), as the suave but evil Dr. Hartz. Noticing that Redgrave, who like many English stage actors had disdain for film acting, was flippantly sleepwalking through his lines in his earliest scenes, Lukas called him to the carpet and challenged him to invest himself in his role. Chagrined, Redgrave responded by giving not only a fine performance here, but by becoming one of Britain’s finest film actors and going on to star in a number of fine classics.
The Lady Vanishes is a spy yarn, the MacGuffin being a secret message encoded within the melody of a folksong that a British spy is determined to deliver to the British government and which the bad guys (not named as Nazis, but pretty transparently intended as such) are equally determined to prevent. The fascists therefore kidnap the spy, an apparently harmless old lady named Miss Froy (played by distinguished stage actress Dame Mae Whitty). The trouble is that one of the passengers, Iris Henderson, notices the disappearance and embarks on a search for her, abetted by the folk musicologist Gilbert. Eventually they frustrate the abduction of Miss Froy and, following a gun battle after the train has been re-routed into some isolated woods, they help her escape.
The plot is secondary to a series of set pieces of the kind that helped earn Hitchcock his sobriquet as the Master of Suspense. One of the best instances of this comes in a scene in which Dr. Hartz, (unbeknownst to our heroes) the leader of the kidnappers, tries to incapacitate Iris and Gilbert by giving each of them a drugged glass of wine. We keep waiting for them to drink the wine, with Hitchcock ratcheting up the suspense by using forced perspective, shooting from behind two oversized wine glasses which end up taking up a substantial portion of the screen. They delay drinking the wine to the last possible moment, and even then Hitchcock inserts a twist: the wine was not drugged after all since one of Hartz’s cohorts had disobeyed his orders.
Although Hitchcock was not a particularly political person and would be roundly criticized for staying in Hollywood during the war instead of returning to help in Great Britain, he nonetheless believed passionately that the Nazis represented a great evil and had to be resisted. In films like Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur he spoke out against isolationism, but here he did so in the year before war broke out in Europe. For all their silliness and initial unwillingness to get involved in matters outside their tiny little world, the Englishmen Caldicott and Charters bravely and unhesitatingly fight the enemy as soon as they understand the nature of the threat. The film can clearly be read as a call to action over appeasement and isolationism. Hitchcock presents Iris and Gilbert’s confronting the disappearance of Miss Froy as an act of heroism, while the other passengers refuse to get involved.
One of the joys in the film is the comic interplay stemming from the brilliant pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Caldicott and Charters, who were so compelling as a pair of silly-ass Britons abroad that they reprised the characters in several subsequent films. Their roles here are crucial as emblems of those within Great Britain who wanted to stay uninvolved in the affairs of Europe. Although they initially refuse to acknowledge that they remembered Miss Froy when Iris is searching the train for her (they fear that if they get involved, the train will be delayed in returning to England, possibly causing them to miss the cricket finals), eventually as “good Englishmen” they do the right thing and enter the battle against the Fascists.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Carol Reed flattered Hitchcock in 1940 with Night Train to Munich, his fine film and rather blatant rip off of The Lady Vanishes. Reed borrowed the conceit of a train filled with Nazis abducting a British citizen, though unlike Hitchcock he was able to allude more explicitly to the politics of the day. Reed also cast some of the same actors, including Margaret Lockwood as his female lead, while Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprised their roles as Caldicott and Charters. The film isn’t quite in the class of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but it is nonetheless one of the finest British thrillers of the war.
From our standpoint it is difficult to appreciate the risk Hitchcock undertook in leaving Great Britain for the United States. Success was by no means guaranteed. For every English actor, director, and writer who found success in Hollywood, there were countless others who failed. After films like The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, and The Lady Vanishes, Hitchcock had established himself as not merely the finest of all British directors but as one of the best directors in the world. Going to Hollywood could have spelled disaster. Instead, Hitchcock went on to become among the most critically acclaimed directors in the history of film.