Rule Hitchcock Britannia!
In 1934, Alfred Hitchcock began a remarkable string of six thrillers, all of which were of a high standard. The films were The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes. Completed during a five-year period, these films were the impetus for independent producer David O. Selznick signing Hitchcock to a contract that would see him come to the United States where he would eventually garner his greatest acclaim.
Hitchcock’s British films have long been in the public domain and have suffered various video indignities as a consequence, aside from Criterion’s efforts first on laserdisc and more recently on DVD. The latest public domain specialist to take a run at the films is Whirlwind Media, Inc. The company has been issuing double feature Hitchcock DVDs as part of its Europa Theatre Series and in general, they are your best bet for seeing these films outside of the Criterion restorations. One of the more recent releases is a double bill of Young and Innocent (1937) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). (It should be noted that neither of these two titles have been issued on or announced for DVD by Criterion.)
Young and Innocent — A film actress is murdered by her estranged husband who is jealous of all her young boyfriends. The next day, writer Robert Tisdall (who happens to be one such boyfriend) discovers her body washed up on the beach. As he runs to call the police, however, two witnesses think that he is the escaping murderer. Robert is arrested, but while at the courthouse, he manages to elude the police and goes on the run with the local Chief Constable’s daughter Erica, determined to prove his innocence.
The Man Who Knew Too Much — Jill and Bob Lawrence are on a winter holiday in St. Moritz with their daughter Betty. While dancing with Jill, a secret agent, Louis Bernard, is shot to death. With his last words, he tells Jill about an assassination planned by some terrorists, about to take place in London. Fearing that the Lawrences will reveal their plan, the spies kidnap Betty and carry her off to London. The Lawrences follow in pursuit of their daughter and Bob soon finds himself caught by the spies as the countdown to the assassination begins.
Young and Innocent (released in the U.S. as The Girl Was Young) — In many ways this is the quintessential Hitchcock British film. The film starts with a bang with an abrupt, almost brutal argument between a woman and her estranged husband. Thereafter, it’s briskly paced featuring both melodrama and suspense and utilizing a favourite Hitchcock theme, that of the double chase. Here the police pursues the hero while he himself is in pursuit of the real killer. It contains too the touches of humour that Hitchcock liked to incorporate in his films; here he saddles the hero with an incompetent lawyer and later allows the pursued couple to pause for a child’s birthday party from which it seems they will never get away. Present too are the typical contrasting venues of wide-open space (the country landscape) and claustrophobic setting (the doss house sequence). Hitchcock’s technical expertise is memorably demonstrated in the hotel sequences near the end when at one point, he uses a single continuous tracking shot that sweeps across a dance floor 150 feet to within inches of the eyes of the drummer in the band.
The actors are uniformly good in their roles, natural and understated for the most part, especially Derrick de Marney as Robert and Nova Pilbeam as Erica. Neither ever became household names. De Marney continued a middling career in films into the 1960s while Pilbeam retired from acting in the 1940s. Reliable and familiar Basil Radford has a small role as the father of the girl whose birthday party sidetracks the escaping couple. Hitchcock’s cameo is that of a man holding a camera outside the courthouse.
The Man Who Knew Too Much — For many, the more familiar version of this film is Hitchcock’s own 1956 remake with the same title. While the later effort is an entertaining, slick-looking vehicle, the 1934 version is the better film. It manages to pack a more complex plot into a significantly shorter running time. It contains plenty of suspense and Hitchcock’s trademark humorous touches at times jarringly juxtaposed next to scenes of violence. The business of the unraveling sweater that manages to tangle up all the dancers on the floor just before one of them is suddenly shot and killed is the best example. Reportedly, Hitchcock had a rather limited budget for the film, necessitating some innovative approaches. The Albert Hall sequence, for example, was shot in the studio with a painting reflected with a mirror into the camera lens serving as most of the concert hall’s audience.
The film also has the benefit of a superior villain, Peter Lorre in his first English language film. Lorre had left Germany when Hitler came to power and he was perfect in the role of the leader of the spies — all smiles and jokes on the surface, but cold-blooded just beneath. The streak of white hair that he sports provides a bizarre touch that reflects the two-sided nature of the character’s personality. The Lawrences were played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best, both familiar British players who had lengthy, successful careers. A much younger-looking (than in Young and Innocent) Nova Pilbeam appears as their daughter Betty.
Both of these titles are worthy of the Criterion treatment and maybe they’ll get it eventually. In the meantime, you can’t go too far wrong with Whirlwind’s double feature package. In addition to the films, Whirlwind has included a very informative eight-page insert providing details on Hitchcock’s career and on the two films as well as two nice poster reproductions. On the disc, there is a good-looking 1937 Twentieth Century — Fox Movietone newsreel that details the sinking of the U.S.S. Panay by the Japanese near Nanking, China. A WB Merry Melodie cartoon “Prest-O Change-O” also appears.
The films look pretty rough with plenty of scratches and speckles throughout, but they’re certainly quite watchable. Overall, I’d say The Man Who Knew Too Much is the better looking of the two. For the most part, the image is fairly sharp and contrast is acceptable. Young and Innocent is more prone to looking soft and even slightly hazy at times. The sound is at best acceptable on the two films. There are numerous pops and noticeable hiss occurs frequently. The dialogue is, however, legible and eventually the sound’s deficiencies tend to be forgotten as one gets immersed in the plots.
The WB cartoon looks as though it has been picked up off the scrap heap. It’s missing its proper title and end cards as well as all its credits and it looks fuzzy and has a reddish hue to it throughout. The story doesn’t feature any of WB’s well-known animated characters and the actual release year was 1939, not 1934 as stated on the package.
Young and Innocent and The Man Who Knew Too Much are two top-notch Hitchcock films that you owe it to yourself to see and which you should have in your DVD collection. At present, your best bet from amongst several public domain specialist releases (including Madacy and Laserlight) is this pairing of the two titles by Whirlwind Media, Inc. The transfers leave something to be desired, but are acceptable in view of the films’ public domain status. Whirlwind has made a fine effort to package the films with interesting contemporary material in the form of a newsreel and cartoon, and comprehensive notes on the films and Hitchcock himself. Recommended.