Alfred Hitchcock is universally accepted as one of the greatest film makers of all time. Whilst most of his best-known work comes from his Hollywood years, “The Master of Suspense” made many films before crossing the pond in the late 1930s. Of his later work, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Dial M for Murder are widely known and lauded. Much of his earlier work is largely unknown to younger generations. However, he made some impressive films during this early period including The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Lady Vanishes.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Hitchcock’s penultimate film in the UK stars Margaret Lockwood as an English tourist (Iris Henderson). She takes shelter after an avalanche delays the train in a fictitious European country. That night in the inn she becomes acquainted with Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a retired English governess. Iris also meets a brash and obnoxious musician, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave). The next day, after being hit on the head by a planter, she is assisted onto the train by Miss Foy. After falling asleep, she awakes to find Miss Froy has disappeared and that none of her fellow passengers have any recollection of the elderly lady. She joins forces with Gilbert to locate her and it gradually becomes apparent that there’s something untoward going on. A friendly doctor (Paul Lukas) may also not be quite what he seems.
The Lady Vanishes is classic Hitchcock. There are great performances from future screen stars Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave (in his first leading role). There’s also an impressive supporting cast including Cecil Parker and Catherine Lacey. Subterfuge and suspicion are the order of the day, as tensions are high in the run up to World War II. Whilst it doesn’t have the grand feel of his later work, the claustrophobic atmosphere only adds to the mystery.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
A British couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best), are on holiday in Switzerland with their daughter Betty. They befriend a fellow guest who is staying at the same hotel, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). As Jill dances with Louis he’s shot, but before he dies he passes on some vital information they must take to the British Consul. The assassins, led by Abbott (Peter Lorre), kidnap Beth to keep them quiet. The chase moves to the Royal Albert Hall as the pair attempt to stop another assassination and rescue their daughter.
The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much is largely overshadowed by the remake starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day two decades later. However, the two aren’t that similar in terms of narrative or tone. Peter Lorre is always a joy to watch and the pace and plot keep you on your toes. There’s something rather magnificent about this period of spy thriller, with both stereotypes and nuns in attendance.
Both films are released on DVD by Network on January 19.