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A mixed bag, but a must for the Hitchcock aficionado
on 8 October 2011
The Early Alfred Hitchcock collection brings together nine films from 1928 to 1932, four silent and five "talkies". The first thing to acknowledge is that it's by no means a definitive look at the early part of his career (his finest silent hour The Lodger is missing, to name but one) but it does give good quality versions of some of his "harder to find" movies on DVD.
Given a slight overlap in release dates (his final silent movie was released after his first talkie) I'll tackle the silent movies first, then the talkies.
The Ring (1928) has a unique place in the Hitchcock cannon being his one and only original screenplay. A melodrama set in the world of carnival boxing, it's not what you would expect from a Hitch film but a flourish of his trademark creative touches throughout the film somewhat overcome the predictable nature of the story. Indeed from early on you will realise that the protagonists will have to meet in the boxing ring for the hand of the fair lady.
Champagne (1928) features a highly suitable title considering that it's a frothy, insubstantial concoction; it's certainly more Tesco Value than Moet that's for sure. It holds interest for the Hitchcock fan given some of the experimental touches on show (the shots through a raised Champagne glass were very clever for their time) and there's a nice twist in the tale but it's far from Hitch's greatest silent moment.
The Farmer's Wife (1929) is an example of Hitch adapting a successful stage play but again, much like The Ring it's an obvious story from the beginning as a widowed farmer decides to try and marry again...all the while failing to see the girl who is truly suited to him. Worth seeing for the tea party (a rare chance to see Hitch attempting slapstick - although not as good as some scenes from Waltzes from Vienna) and Gordon Harker's turn as a handyman, it's nevertheless a sleight piece.
The silent's are rounded off by The Manxman (1930), a story that had already been a novel, a stage play and a film previously. Yet another love-triangle, this time set in an Isle Of Man fishing community and it has to be said that the lack of words don't in any way prevent us from feeling what the characters do; the performances of Carl Brisson and Anny Ondra are great and the scenery is wonderful enough to make you forget what a load of old tosh the storyline could be said to be.
Anny Ondra turns up in 1929's Blackmail, although her thick accent put paid to her film stardom in England before too long (she had to be dubbed for this), in what was Britain's first talkie. As it started off as a silent movie there are portions of the movie that don't really work but it's a clear sign of Hitch's brilliance that the film works in both mediums (no silent version on this set, mind you). It's perhaps best seen as an early sign of Hitch's darker side and proof of Hitch's long held belief that "sound" in movies should never just be about people talking.
Murder! (1930) might well be the most outright entertaining movie in the set as Herbert Marshall becomes convinced of a convicted girl's innocence of murder and seeks to clear her of all charges. It's not a great movie in any historical sense (and the plot's reasoning for the real killer's motives is certainly not one for this era) but it is great fun. For every director's trick that works (this is the first time in a movie that a person's thoughts are voiced on the soundtrack of the film) there is one that doesn't (witness the "spongy" floor in the office scene) but if you can sit and watch black and white films from this era you are sure to enjoy this one.
The Skin Game (1931) returns to melodrama and not entirely successfully. Another adaptation of a stage play, it wasn't a project that Hitch wanted to do. Those with a great interest in Hitch's craft will see some nice touches but the long stretches of dialogue-heavy scenes didn't do anything for me.
Rich and Strange (1932) was allegedly inspired by Hitch's own honeymoon experiences with beloved wife Alma and whilst it isn't quite the equivalent of watching your next door neighbours holiday video late one Saturday night the moments of genuine hilarity are a little too sparse to make this worth a true recommendation.
The set finishes with Number Seventeen (1932) which is another film that Hitch had little real interest in...so he spends the entire movie sending the whole thing up. And quite brilliantly too. It's a "nothing" film in most senses but again is a very entertaining one. Ann Casson and Anne Grey put in great performances and the climactic chase scene has to be seen to be believed (and don't worry - you won't believe it). The hour or so running time simply flies by.
These nine films don't showcase the "best" of Hitchcock by any means and they are certainly not the place to start for the uninitiated. For those who have seen his more famous works and wish to explore his early career though, there is much to appreciate here. And in amongst the early looks as the themes, motifs and visual tricks that Hitch would employ throughout his career you'll also find a number of entertaining movies in their own right. And for the current price of less than £, this is a steal.