Friday, December 24, 2021

Butterfield 8 (1960)

Butterfield 8 is a more interesting movie than its reputation would suggest. It was made at a transitional moment for Hollywood. During the 50s the process of undermining the Production Code had begun. Otto Preminger had shown that the Production Code Authority could be defied. He made a couple of movies that were refused a Production Code Seal of Approval but they were released commercially anyway and did well at the Box Office. By 1960 the Production Code was showing clearly visible cracks.

At the same time the major studios were tentatively exploring the radical idea of making grown-up movies for grown-ups. They were even starting to get interested in making movies that dealt with sex honestly and openly. In 1960 The World of Suzie Wong dealt with an American businessman who falls in love with a Chinese prostitute. In 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a major hit and although it is not openly stated in the film it is blindingly obvious that Holly Golightly is an expensive high-class call girl. Butterfield 8 was part of the same wave of Hollywood movies about sex.

Butterfield 8 is a steamy sex melodrama about a beautiful socialite, Gloria Wandrous (Elizabeth Taylor), who has slept with so many men that she describes herself as the biggest slut of all time. Her latest conquest is Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) but this time it’s different. He’s the first man she’s slept with and then fallen in love with. Which would be a wonderful thing except that he’s married. And his wife Emily (Dina Merrill) is growing tired of his relentless pursuit of skirt.

There’s another man in Gloria’s life. Steve Carpenter (Eddie Fisher) is a childhood friend but it’s obvious to everyone (except possibly to Gloria) that Steve is hopelessly in love with her. It’s certainly obvious to Steve’s fiancée Norma (Susan Oliver).

Gloria has decided that Weston Liggett is the one man she wants and she intends to get him. She intends to have him all to herself.

This is obviously likely to end messily.

By the standards of 1960 Butterfield 8 is very open about sex. In the opening scene Gloria wakes up in bed naked and reaches out for the man she expects to find next to her, and that man is another woman’s husband. Remember that in the heyday of the Production Code married couples were not supposed to sleep in the same bed. Shortly afterwards we see Gloria and Liggett arrive at a motel in the middle of the day. For contemporary audiences a movie that made it absolutely crystal clear that a woman is having sex with another woman’s husband would have been pretty startling.

What makes this transitional phase in Hollywood history interesting is that Hollywood was still not quite sure how to handle such a story. Under the Production Code Gloria would have to severely punished for her sexual sins. The favoured way of dealing with such a situation was to have the woman redeemed by a noble self-sacrificing death. In 1960 the studios were not sure whether to continue to play safe and have the wicked woman die for her sins or whether to allow her to find happiness. They just weren’t sure which way to jump. For obvious reasons I’m not going to tell you which way this film jumps.

Butterfield 8 was at the time widely dismissed as a trashy movie based on a trashy novel. It has never quite been able to escape that reputation.

One of the problems is that Butterfield 8 really is trashy. It’s an overheated sweaty sex melodrama. I happen to like overheated sweaty sex melodramas. Butterfield 8 reminds me just a little of Valley of the Dolls - it’s a movie that takes itself too seriously and ends up veering into camp territory. Butterfield 8 is nowhere near as camp as Valley of the Dolls but it does have that slight tendency. It has a lot of overblown moments, and a lot of pompous dialogue. On the plus side there are some delightfully catty exchanges between Gloria and Norma.

One thing we have to confront is the question of what Gloria actually does. While movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s skirted around the prostitution question Butterfield 8 seems to go to great lengths to persuade us that Gloria isn’t a prostitute. But there are things about the plot and about the motivations of the characters that don’t make sense if she’s not a prostitute. It’s just possible that she inhabits the ambiguous world of mistresses who are in practice courtesans. But the whole telephone thing certainly suggests that she’s a call girl.

If there’s an underlying theme to this movie it’s people being dishonest with others and with themselves about sex, and rushing to make judgments on others and on themselves about sex. Liggett loves Gloria but he won’t leave his wife for her because his wife Emily is the sort of virtuous woman that you marry whereas he considers Gloria to be a slut. Gloria’s friend Steve Carpenter genuinely cares about her and is sexually obsessed with her but he also considers her to be the kind of Bad Girl that men don’t marry. He also considers her to be a slut. And she considers herself to be a slut or a whore or both.

Gloria’s mother manages at one and the same time to think that her daughter is a slut and a virgin who is saving herself for marriage. She cannot accept the truth that Gloria has sex with men and enjoys it.

It’s interesting that Gloria doesn’t really feel guilty about having sex with a married man. What she feels guilty and ashamed about is the fact that she enjoys sex.

Elizabeth Taylor won the Best Actress Oscar for this film (a film she hated) and there’s some controversy about that as well. There was a widely held belief that it was a “making amends” Oscar, that she only won the award because the Academy belatedly realised they should have given her the Oscar for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There’s no question that she deserved an Oscar for that film but personally I think she won for Butterfield 8 because she gave a damned good performance. Whether the movie itself was worthy of her is another matter.

What can be said is that Miss Taylor really does steam up the screen. At this stage of her career she positively oozed sex. Fortunately that’s exactly what this rôle calls for and she goes all out.

And then there’s the matter of her co-star. Laurence Harvey is an actor a lot of people love tp hate. He routine gets described as wooden or dull. Personally I think that’s because the absurd histrionics of Method Acting were all the rage at the time. Harvey was a real actor and he gave subtle believable performances. He’s an actor I admire quite a bit but I have to admit that there are many who disagree with me.

I don’t think Butterfield 8 has had a Blu-Ray release but the Warner Home Video DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer.

Butterfield 8 isn’t a great movie but it’s a lot more interesting that it seems to be on the surface. For that reason it’s recommended.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Notorious (1946), Hitchcock Friday #8

Notorious is one of Hitchcock’s most admired movies. I have of course seen it before, more than once, but not for at least twenty years. It comes in the middle of what I personally consider to be the low point of Hitchcock’s career, his 1940s Hollywood movies.

Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) is an American but her father is German and he’s a convicted Nazi spy. The US Government persuades her (by means of emotional blackmail and the implied threat of actual blackmail) to work for them to infiltrate a group of Germans in Brazil. She is recruited by an American spy, Devlin (Cary Grant).

Alicia is a Bad Girl. She is a notorious woman. She drinks and she possibly sleeps with men, which is about as wicked as anyone could imagine in the 1940s. Her job is to get herself into the good graces of a certain Alex Sebastian who is assumed to be the key figure in the evil Nazi plot. Her assignment is to become Alex’s mistress but of course the audience can’t be told anything so shocking. It is however perfectly obvious that that is the plan. That of course is exactly what female spies did - they used sex in order to gain information or to set someone up for blackmail. Female spies were used as honey traps. The US intelligence agency that came up with this particular scheme assumes that Alicia, being an immoral woman, won’t object.

Before she sets out for Brazil romance blossoms between Alicia and Devlin although it’s complicated by the fact that he has no real respect for her because she’s an immoral woman.

She has few problems getting Alex Sebastian interested in her. They knew each other several years later and he’d been in love with her then. In fact he has never really stopped loving her.

What those Nazis in Brazil are up to is of course of no importance whatsoever. There’s some secret plot but it’s just a McGuffin. Hitchcock as usual is interested in the visual possibilities offered by the thin plot, in creating effective suspense and in exploring themes that always interested him - in this case love, suspicion and betrayal. There has never been a director quite so indifferent to plot as Alfred Hitchcock.

The CIA did not exist in 1946 and we’re never told the name of the US intelligence agency for which Devlin works. For convenience I’ll refer to them as the CIA. It’s strange at first that the Nazis are the bad guys, considering that the war was over and the Nazis were totally defeated. But in 1946 the Soviets were still counted among the Good Guys. So even though it makes little sense in 1946 the Nazis still have to play the role of the Bad Guys. The idea is that there’s a circle of Nazis in Brazil and they’re up to something sinister.

In 1936 Hitchcock had made a remarkably cynical spy movie called Secret Agent. Espionage seemed to fascinate him because it is all about deception. Betrayal is the stock-in-trade of the spy. Notorious, like Secret Agent, is brutally honest about espionage. The good guys are no more trustworthy and no more moral than the bad guys. In Notorious there’s no moral difference between the Nazi conspirators and the CIA. Both treat human beings as pawns in a game, to be sacrificed when they’re no longer useful. Espionage is a dirty game no matter which side is playing it. And if you’re obsessively interested in voyeurism, as Hitchcock was, espionage offers plenty of opportunities.

This is the closest Cary Grant ever got to playing an out-and-out swine. What makes Devlin particularly contemptible is that he really has fallen for Alicia, but he’s still prepared to encourage her to take on such a grubby job, a job which will obviously damage her fragile self-resect even further. It might destroy her psychologically and emotionally. But he’s still happy for her to do the job, and he’s still happy to manipulate her into doing so.

Of course if Devlin had a shred of human decency he wouldn’t be a spy. You get to be a spy by proving that you’re perfectly comfortable with the idea of lying to people, manipulating them and using them. We get the impression that Devlin has never had any problems doing such things.

Any discussion of Hitchcock will inevitably have to deal with the appalling censorship problems he ran into especially during the 1940s. It wasn’t just the Production Code Authority. The studios routinely exercised their own unofficial censorship, vetoing anything that they thought might be even mildly controversial. In the case of Notorious much has been made of the famous love scene in which Hitchcock, being forbidden to have his characters doing anything as disgusting as having a lengthy kiss (which might have permanently scarred the minds of innocent American youth), has them engage in a process of serial kissing. But censorship in Hollywood in the 40s went far beyond such overt content. Movie-makers faced incredible restrictions on the subject matter they cold deal with and the ways in which they dealt with a variety of subjects. These were the days when the assumption was that audience members would be shocked and horrified by any suggestion that married couples had sex.

Hitchcock loathed censorship and usually ended up trying to subvert it by dealing with sexual matters by means of subtle hints. In this case the problem was Alicia’s past. She may have been promiscuous and may even have been a courtesan (we do get the vague impression that the Commodore may be a client rather than an old friend). Hints are dropped about Alicia’s sex life but the hints are too vague. Apparently in the original version of the script she was indeed a prostitute. Obviously that had to be changed in the final version. In the version as filmed it appears that she may have had love affairs.

This was Hollywood in the 40s. You come up with a script that works and makes perfect sense. The Production Code Authority forces you to make drastic changes. You come up with a second version which makes less sense and works less well. The studio forces you to make more drastic changes. You end up with a final script that makes no sense, but the moral watchdogs are happy. In the case of Notorious the end result is that the Devlin-Alicia relationship makes no sense. Had she been a prostitute or a kept woman then we could have bought the idea that Devlin might well feel a mixture of attraction and repulsion towards her. In the movie he does feel a mixture of attraction and repulsion towards her, but his attitude is incomprehensible. The man is a spy, not a Sunday School teacher. He has undoubtedly sexually manipulated plenty of women. That’s what spies do. He’s not the type to be shocked and dismayed that his new lady love is not a virgin. But that’s what we’e expected to believe. In fact, as presented in the final film, Alicia may even be a virgin. Instead of being a man suffering from emotional turmoil he just comes across as unbelievable and nasty.

The Production Code Authority also insisted on the removal of an early scene which made it clear that Alicia was a kept woman. The Production Code Authority didn’t quite succeed in wrecking Notorious but they come very close to it. The emotional dynamic between Alicia and Devlin, which is the core of the film, is fatally weakened and seems phoney.

There’s a scene in which (very daringly for a 1946 Hollywood movie), Alicia tells Devlin that she’s now Alex’s mistress. Even though Devlin knows quite well that this was the entire plan all along he reacts like a spoilt child who’s had a candy bar taken away from him. If he’s in love with her it’s understandable that he’d be upset but he behaves as if Alicia is just a whore. He makes sure she knows how much he despises her. Again it makes no sense. The only people in the movie who are actually trying to make a whore of Alicia are the US Government, and Devlin as their agent.

As a result of the moralistic meddling Alex becomes the only sympathetic male character in the movie. Alicia would be better off with Alex, who treats her with respect and gentleness, rather than Devlin for (for no plausible reason) treats her like dirt.

I don’t think Hitchcock had any interest in the political dimensions of the story. Whether Devlin is on the side of the Good Guys and Alex on the side of the Bad Guys doesn’t matter. It’s the suspicions and the betrayals within the romantic triangle that count. The espionage plot is one of the thinnest and weakest in cinema history. Which suited Hitchcock perfectly. Nobody who has ever watched Notorious has cared about the spy plot.

Hitchcock had little or no interest in politics. If he had had any political agenda then you would expect to see it in his spy films, but his spy films are entirely lacking in political content. Hitchcock was fascinated by the world of espionage because it was all about deception and betrayal. And if you throw a woman into such a world, a world in which lies and betrayal are taken for granted, you have a great opportunity to explore themes of love, loyalty, betrayal, suspicion and deceit. But Hitchcock was interested in these themes at a personal rather than a political level. We certainly get the impression that the US Government agency for which Devlin works has chosen Alicia for this job because they consider her to be a bad woman which means they’re not obliged to bother themselves about her feelings or her safety.

Ingrid Bergman is excellent. Cary Grant’s performance is good but fatally weakened by the script changes which make him appear to be merely a bully and a prig rather than a man grappling with emotional turmoil.

Notorious is another typical 1940s Hitchcock movie, a potentially very great movie sabotaged by the censors. It’s still a very very good movie, but again instead of the raw Scotch that it should have been we get the Scotch heavily watered down. It’s still a great movie but, thanks to the Production Code Authority, it’s a flawed one. When you find yourself hoping that the hero will get killed at the end but that the villain will survive you have a serious problem. Notorious approaches greatness but doesn’t quite achieve it. It’s still highly recommended.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock Friday #7

So I had to get to Vertigo eventually didn’t I? I can hardly claim to be re-immersing myself in the world of Hitchcock without revisiting this one.

Vertigo is now widely accepted as the greatest motion picture ever made. I’ve never been convinced that it’s even the best movie Hitchcock ever made (although I would have put it in my Hitchcock Top Five). I have always thought The 39 Steps, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window and Psycho were probably better movies in the sense that they’re more successful in achieving precisely what the director set out to achieve. But Vertigo is the one that gets under your skin. And watching Vertigo again might well change my mind about its status in the Hitchcock canon.

I can see why Vertigo did not do well at the box office. The first 45 minutes of the film would have left audiences bewildered, bored and disgruntled. If they were expecting a tense suspense thriller they would have been bitterly disappointed. And if you can’t grab the audience in the first 45 minutes you probably won’t grab them at all. That first three-quarters of an hour is absolutely crucial but you don’t understand that until later. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Vertigo. It just is not in any way, shape or form a conventional suspense thriller. You have to let yourself be drawn gradually into the film’s strange twisted dream-like world but you have to have the patience to let that happen.

He uses the same trick he would use in Psycho a couple of years later - what seems to be the climax of the movie happens halfway through. At which point the movie changes gears slightly. Then, shortly afterwards, with an hour or so of screen time remaining. Hitchcock explains the entire mystery plot in every detail. The mystery is entirely resolved. At which point Vertigo changes gears really dramatically and becomes a dark, disturbing psycho-sexual-emotional drama.

But while the audience now knows exactly what happened, Scotty doesn’t. So now the suspense kicks in. We fear something, but we have no idea what it is.

The plot is intricate. It’s far-fetched but it has its own internal logic. The plot is however not of overriding importance. What matters is the visual style that Hitchcock brings to the movie and the way he works through such favourite themes as fear, guilt, obsession, voyeurism, betrayal, suspicion, love and sex.

John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) is a cop. A sudden attack of vertigo on his part leds to the death of another cop. Scotty retires from the force. An old college friend, Gavin Elster, persuades Scotty to undertake an investigation for him, as a personal favourite. Gavin has the idea that his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) thinks she is possessed by the soul of a long-dead woman. He fears that, like the long-dead woman, she may try to kill herself. Scotty follows Madeleine and has reason to believe she really is suicidal. He makes some serious errors of judgment, blinded by his increasing obsession with Madeleine. And then something happens that changes everything, for Scotty and for the viewer. Hitchcock has some major tricks up his sleeve.

Strangely enough the first time I saw this movie I wasn’t very impressed by Kim Novak. Seeing it now I can appreciate the absolute perfection of her performance. In fact it’s one of the great screen performances.

James Stewart is very good as well, but the movie belongs to Kim Novak.

While Scotty becomes a really dark character in the second half of the film right from the start we have the feeling that he’s not quite right. From the moment that his vertigo causes the death of a fellow policeman he is riddled with guilt and self-recrimination. His judgment is questionable. He is becoming emotionally involved with a married woman. The idea that this might be wrong, or at least unwise, does not occur to him. Where does he expect his obsession to lead to? He doesn’t seem to know. He’s not thinking things out. He is so much in the grip of his obsession that he’s not thinking at all. He also, throughout the movie, seem to just assume that she will go along with his obsession. If it’s what he wants then she must want it too.

There’s plenty of the trademark Hitchcock interest in voyeurism in this movie. Scotty has to tail Madeleine, it’s what he’s been hired to do, but there’s a definite voyeuristic edge to the way he does it. And he’s already hypnotised by her beauty. His sexual and romantic obsession with her the moment he first set eyes on her. We get the feeling that even if his client decided to take him off the case Scotty would probably keep following Madeleine anyway. As always with the voyeurism in Hitchcock there’s the complication that the voyeur may be entirely misinterpreting what he sees. It’s significant that there are so many mirrors in the movie - mirrors show us reality, but in reverse, which is often how Scotty sees things.

There’s an enormous amount of perverse sexuality in this movie. Hitchcock was still hampered by the Production Code but he manages to get the perverse sexuality across pretty effectively.

And he gets away with some subtle sexual hints. When Scotty fishes Madeleine out of the water half-drowned you might think that the logical thing to do would be to take her to a hospital or to a doctor. Instead he takes her back to his apartment. He doesn’t call a doctor. It’s also obvious that he has undressed Madeleine before putting her to bed. Madeleine certainly notices, when she wakes up, that she is naked. Obviously he had to get her out of her wet clothes but in 1958 you might think that the obvious thing for a man to do in such a situation would be to phone a female friend (he could easily have phoned Midge and told her he had a half-drowned girl in his apartment and could she come over). So we know that Scotty has now seen Madeleine naked, Madeleine knows it, and Hitchcock makes sure that we know it, which adds to the voyeuristic quality of Scotty’s shadowing of Madeleine. It’s also a subtle indication that Scotty is starting to think of Madeleine as belonging to him in some way.

The artificiality of Vertigo has to be addressed. Hitchcock didn’t give a damn if his movies looked like they were shot on a sound stage. He wanted them to look like they were shot on a sound stage. He had no time at all for the fetish for location shooting that infected cinema in the 50s. He rejected realism entirely. His movies take place in a created universe with its own rules. Hitchcock was right of course. Realism is a dead end. Vertigo makes no concessions to realism. The entire movie plays out like a fever dream.

Many many movies have been influenced by Hitchcock over the years but few have been so obviously influenced as Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (which I re-watched recently) and it’s clear that Vertigo was the major influence in that case. There are not only striking stylistic affinities but lots of thematic links. And of course Sharon Stone is made to look exactly like Kim Novak (which is wonderfully apt considering the subject matter of Vertigo).

The Vertigo Blu-Ray includes an audio commentary by William Friedkin. He makes the interesting point that the McKittrick Hotel set used in Vertigo appears to be the same set, re-dressed, used as the interior of the Bates house in Psycho. There are lots of other extras as well. The movie looks superb on Blu-Ray.

Having now seen the film for the third time I’m inclined to think I was wrong. Vertigo really is Hitchcock’s greatest movie. And yes, it just might be one of the greatest movies of all time, possibly in the top five.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

A Gunman Has Escaped (1948)

A Gunman Has Escaped is a British crime B-feature from 1948 and it’s a pretty obvious quota quickie.

A gang robs a jewellery store and a passer-by is shot during the robbery. The man may die.

It was Eddie Steele (John Harvey) who pulled the trigger. Eddie decides it would be a good idea to make himself scarce but he insists that two other members of the gang accompany him - he doesn’t trust them not to grass on him. Sinclair (John Fitzgerald) and Bill (Robert Cartland) aren’t thrilled by the idea that Eddie still has that gun and he’s short-tempered, not too stable and very insistent so they don’t have much choice.

The other members of the gang try to explain to Eddie that taking Sinclair and Bill with him is just going to make things easier for the police by making it much more likely that one of the three will be recognised but there’s no reasoning with Eddie.

The truth is that while he won’t admit it Eddie is pretty rattled. If that passer-by dies he could be heading for an appointment with the hangman. Eddie might be a tough buy but the thought of having a noose put around one’s neck is the sort of thing that would frighten anybody.

Eddie continues to do rash things. The three try to hitch a life but the truck driver gets suspicious so Eddie slugs him. As you would expect, once the truck driver comes around he contacts the police so the cops now know which direction in which their quarry is heading.

The three head for a farm, hoping to get some work and lie low for a while. Te farmer has a pretty daughter (played by Jane Arden) and it’s soon obvious that she and Bill are getting a bit sweet on each other. This doesn’t please Eddie. Eddie doesn’t trust women. He doesn’t even trust his girlfriend Goldie (Maria Charles). In fact he especially doesn’t trust Goldie. But then he doesn’t trust anybody. And he's right to be paranoid.

The news on the radio is not reassuring. The police seem to have some idea of the identities of the men they’re hunting and it appears that someone may have grassed on Eddie after all. It’s probably one of the other three members of the gang, the ones who didn’t come with Eddie. It could be Johnson or Red or Spike, or it could even be Goldie. Eddie is getting a bit paranoid by now.

Sinclair and Bill are getting a bit more worried by Eddie’s behaviour. Sinclair would cheerfully hand him over to the police if he could do so safely but he doesn’t dare do anything.

Of course we know it’s going to end badly for the crooks but we don’t know exactly how badly.

John Harvey is convincingly edgy and unpredictable and violent as Eddie. John Fitzgerald is very good as Sinclair, in some ways the most interesting member of the trio and the one we’d like to learn a bit more about. Sinclair is the odd man out. He’s a crook but he’s an educated and cultured man and he despises the low-class hoodlums that he’s associated with. Bill is just a typical minor criminal with an intense loyalty to Eddie.

John Gilling, who went on to an interesting career as a director, wrote the screenplay.

Producer-director Richard M. Grey is a rather obscure figure who had a very brief career. While he does a reasonably competent job here there’s nothing in A Gunman Has Escaped to suggest he was ever likely to have a distinguished career.

This is a relatively violent movie by 1948 British standards, with a higher body count than you might expect.

A Gunman Has Escaped is one of the nine feature films included in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set (a good value-for-money set). The transfer is pretty good. The set also includes the slightly odd but interesting Death Goes to School and the quite decent Murder at 3am.

If you don’t set your expectations too high and you keep in mind that this is a very cheap movie then A Gunman Has Escaped provides reasonably good entertainment. Recommended.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) Hitchcock Friday #6

The Man Who Knew Too Much marked the beginning of the extraordinary run of great British thrillers made by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. A run of films that would establish his international reputation. He would never again be so consistently at such a peak of creativity. It’s also a movie in which you can see the Hitchcock formula falling into place. Pretty much everything you want in a Hitchcock movie is here - an attractive couple in love, the combination of suspense, romance and humour, the spectacular visual set-pieces, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

Hitchcock remade this movie in 1956 but the original 1934 version is the better movie.

It was also his first spy thriller.

Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) and his wife Jill are in Switzerland. Jill is competing in a shooting contest - she’s a champion markswoman. They’re clearly a very happily married couple. They’re accompanied by their fourteen-year-old daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). And then a murder takes place (in a very cleverly shot scene). The dying man gives Jill a message that absolutely must reach the British Consul.

It soon becomes clear that someone is determined to stop the Lawrences from passing on that message. That someone has decided to make sure of stopping them by kidnapping young Betty.

The Foreign Office thinks the murder was connected to a plot to assassinate an eastern European statesman. They want the Lawrences to co-operate but the Lawrences have to decide between their daughter’s life and the statesman’s life and their daughter’s life matters more to them. They won’t help the government. Bob Lawrence does however decide to do some investigating on his own. He finds out quite a bit but there’s still the problem of how to foil the assassin’s plot without risking Betty’s life.

There are just so many classic Hitchcock moments in this movie. The scene in the dentist’s office. Mixing danger with some dark humour. The fight in the Tabernacle of the Sun. Hitchcock really doesn’t put a foot wrong.

One weakness in later Hitchcock is the pacing. His movies became much too long. This movie has a running time of just 75 minutes. The remake took 120 minutes to tell an inferior story. In 1934 Hitchcock’s pacing was blistering. There’s not a single wasted scene in the 1934 version.

There’s humour of course, but just the right amount to provide an occasional letup in the tension before Hitchcock ramps up the suspense once again.

Leslie Banks, a big name at the time, is very good as is Edna Best as his wife. Nova Pilbeam’s performance impressed Hitchcock so much that three years later he cast her as the female lead in the superb Young and Innocent. Hitchcock was right. She gives a terrific performance in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Of course it’s Peter Lorre who owns this movie. He’s in full-on sinister foreigner mode. He’s terrifying but he has funny moments which just serve to make him seem more menacing. His politeness increases his sense of menace as well. He can be polite because he believes that his plans are so carefully laid that they cannot fail.

Lorre is so delightful that we’re tempted to root for him even though he’s the villlain, but there’s no real danger that we’ll actually do that. If the bad guys win then young Betty will die and we really like her. There’s nothing like a Woman in Peril to keep the audience on the side of the good guys.

This movie features the first of Hitchcock’s really famous visual set-pieces, the superb Albert Hall sequence. It’s much more effective than the equivalent scene in his remake.

Unusually for a Hitchcock movie there’s an extraordinarily bloody extended action finale with probably the highest body count in any of his movies. That finale was inspired by the real-life Sidney Street siege in 1911.

Network’s release offers an excellent transfer. I’d previously only seen in this movie in a very dodgy VHS release. The only significant extra is a 1970s documentary on Hitchcock which includes an interview with the man himself.

He went on to make better movies but The Man Who Knew Too Much is the most important movie Hitchcock ever made. It showed him the path to success. It established him as the Master of Suspense. From that point on every time he left that path, every time he abandoned that successful formula, he experienced failure. As soon as he returned to the path he was back on top.

And The Man Who Knew Too Much is in itself pretty entertaining. Highly recommended.