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The Genius of Hitchcock – The Write Stuff

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Ivan Radford asks what the BFI's Genius of Hitchcock season taught us about what makes a 'Hitchcock movie'.

The BFI's Genius of Hitchcock season came to a close last Friday evening with the restoration premiere of The Manxman, Hitch’s final silent film. Shot in 1929, before he started playing with sound in Blackmail, the film – based on a novel by Hall Caine – is a serious affair about a serious affair.

Pete, a poor fisherman, and Phillip, a rich lawyer, are both in love with Kate. But when Kate’s dad disapproves of Pete’s empty pockets, he runs off to find his fortune, leaving his lover to shack up with Phil. Will Pete return? And if he does, which man will Kate choose?

It may not sound like a thrilling Hitchcock classic – and that’s because it isn’t. Even the director himself is dismissive of the picture. "The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one," he told Truffaut.

That’s selling it short, but despite some strong visuals, good location work in Cornwall (doubling for the Isle of Man) and a great cast, The Manxman is still missing some of that Hitchcock spark. Is it simply a case of an adaptation gone awry?

"The novel had quite a reputation and it belonged to a tradition. We had to respect that reputation and that tradition," Hitch explained to the French director, adding: "It was not a Hitchcock movie." And so, as the Genius of Hitchcock retrospective ends, The Manxman raises a fitting final question: what exactly is a 'Hitchcock movie'?

For a director with such recognizable styles and themes, the majority of his work actually came from other people's. Joseph Conrad. Patricia Highsmith. Noel Coward. Out of his humongous oeuvre, which has now screened in its entirety at the BFI, 27 projects were adapted from novels. Thirteen were based on plays. The number of original screenplays? Six.

The BFI’s restoration of his silent films included one of those: 1927’s The Ring. Like The Manxman, that too was a drama about a love triangle, a similarly flawed tale of a boxer filled with flashes of visual bravado. The Manxman out-punches The Ring, though, thanks to the casting of the wonderful Anny Ondra, Hitch’s first truly knockout blonde lead – a Czech actress capable of sad, sexy and silly all at the same time. (She would go on to wow even further in Blackmail the following year.) But The Ring rivals The Manxman because it introduces another woman into the ring: Alma Reville, aka Mrs Hitchcock.

A writer and editor in demand even before she met her husband, Alma has 16 official credits across Hitch’s work, starting with The Ring and going all way through to Shadow of a Doubt and others. She reputedly fell off the radar when Under Capricorn’s script had a negative reception in 1949, but remained an unseen player in everything Hitch made. On set, he would frequently defer to her judgment over when a take was right, and she always helped go through the screenplays with a fine toothcomb during development. Legend has it that she spotted a continuity error in Psycho’s shower scene that not even Hitch noticed.

There’s no doubt about it. In their creative relationship, Mrs Hitchcock wore the trousers. In 1979, Hitchcock even dedicated his Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFI to his wife. But The Ring and The Manxman share another writing credit: Elliot Stannard. Stannard was Hitch’s go-to guy during his early, silent years, responsible for writing the first definitive Hitchcock movie, The Lodger. He even moved studios with the director when he switched from Gainsborough to British International Pictures. Other scribes came and went, including Charles Bennett, whose play Blackmail prompted Hitch’s film, only for him to return as screenwriter on both The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

While Hitchcock may not have written many of his own films, The Master of Suspense’s relationship with his writers was clearly very close. After 1939’s Jamaica Inn and 1940's Rebecca, a treatment for The Birds saw Daphne du Maurier provide a third text for him to adapt. With such careful involvement right from page one, it’s no surprise that the director’s signature soon became established: he was the kind of director who liked to have everything down on paper in detail first, leaving the shooting itself to run without (ahem) a hitch.

And yet he avoided literary classics. Rebecca was one of the most high-profile novels he worked with. As for the rest? They terrified him. Given his concerns about guilt and moral transgressions – just as evident in The Manxman’s emotional betrayals as in the overtly Catholic I Confess – Hitch was often asked whether he would bring Crime and Punishment to the screen. His final answer to Truffaut was a definitive no:

"Crime and Punishment is somebody else’s achievement. There’s a lot of talk about the way Hollywood directors distort literary masterpieces. I’ll have no part of that! What I do is read a story only once and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema."

Is a Hitchcock movie, then, one that takes a story and recreates it in the cinematic medium without sticking too closely to the original? That seems to be Hitch’s take on it.

"Juno and the Paycock [1929] got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema," Hitchcock confessed of one of his most faithful literary adaptations, based on Sean O’Casey’s classic play. "The critics praised the picture and I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something."

In the case of Juno, that faithfulness paid off. In the case of The Lodger, the novel’s ending was changed – due to studio pressure over the casting of Ivor Novello as the bad guy – which led to the birth of Hitch’s most iconic trope, the innocent man on the run. But The Manxman’s restrictive reputation leaves the screen with lots of speaking and less dramatic tension. Hitch actually omits title cards in some scenes, trusting us to be able to read Anny Ondra’s gorgeous lips for ourselves. But apart from that striking decision, it remains a text that left his pen little wriggle room.

Would Alma have moved the book’s margins to free up more space? Maybe, but at the time she had just given birth to their daughter, Patricia. Alma might have added some jokes as well: a Hitchcock film is arguably as much defined by its dark comedy as its carefully scripted tension. Even in 1948’s Rope, a mostly serious discussion of morals and philosophy, the central scenario is darkly hilarious. The Trouble with Harry several years later, adapted by John Michael Hayes from a novel by Jack Trevor, maintained the book’s blackly comic tone. As Hitch put it, he "took the melodrama out of the pitch-black night into the sunshine".

The BFI’s run of Hitch’s silents shows a similar taste for comedy. Champagne, which preceded The Manxman, is a fizzy little number, full of drunk men staggering down hallways and trick shots through glasses. On Blackmail’s set, Hitch winds Anny Ondra up with all the wicked humour of a man well-known for loving practical jokes. The Farmer’s Wife made the jokes even broader. And yet, when taking on Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue in 1928, Hitch stripped out a lot of the laughs (and some of Coward’s witty dialogue), crafting a melodrama that is completely at odds with Stephan Elliott’s 2009 version, starring Colin Firth.

Was Hitchcock was still developing his comic tastebuds when The Manxman landed on mainland shores? Over the years, they became as important to Hitch as murder and infidelity. No wonder he was so popular: the "humour of the macabre", as he called it, is a "strictly British genre". After all, what could sum UK cinema history more than a man who enjoyed murder, mystery and laughing at both.

Whether it’s the lack of humour or the faithfulness of the script, this final middle-of-the-road film in the BFI retrospective is a reminder of Hitch’s attention to detail and love for literary adaptations – but also the importance of his partner in crime.

What makes a Hitchcock movie? This summer, the Genius of Hitchcock season has given us a raft of answers. The sound. The visuals. The locations. The women. The music. The scripts. But the elusive answer might be something far more mysterious: his wife.

Perhaps they should have it The Genius of Hitchcocks instead.

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