The streaming-video channel FilmStruck is currently featuring Alfred Hitchcock’s early British features from the 1920s and ’30s. Many of the director’s favorite themes, motifs, and visual devices are already in evidence, as is his dark, sardonic wit. Highlighted below are two of his more famous films from the period (The Lodger and Sabotage) and two real obscurities.
Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent (1927). Not a great film, but a remarkable one, with Hitchcock at his most “innovative,” shooting through plate-glass floors and generally one-upping the expressionist cliches of the period. The story bears a strong resemblance to Frenzy. 75 min. —Dave Kehr
Rich and Strange
And so it is: this early (1931) Hitchcock film shows more signs of the artist to come than any of his other British movies, pointing forward in particular to the deep sexual themes of Marnie and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Joan Barry and Henry Kendall play a middle-class couple who inherit some money and run off to sample the illicit pleasures of the continent; following the Shakespearean title, they experience a sea change in their personalities, their relationship, their fundamental assumptions about the world. Though it ends with a shipwreck and rescue, the film’s suspense is exclusively moral: Hitchcock is testing the spiritual strength of his characters, without his usual murderous metaphors. 83 min. —Dave Kehr
A peculiar and neglected early Hitchcock stage adaptation (1932), notable because it was intended partly as an absurdist send-up and none of the contemporary reviewers got the point. (The opening sequence suggests a kind of delirium of continuity that the picture periodically returns to.) Most of the film is set in an abandoned house, where enjoyably murky intrigues abound, and the last ten minutes feature a chase sequence with miniatures that is almost as much fun. 63 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Freely adapted from Conrad’s The Secret Agent, this 1936 study of murderous intimacy is ripe for reevaluation as the masterpiece of Alfred Hitchcock’s British period. As harrowing as anything else in the Hitchcock oeuvre, it’s one of his few films to comment directly on the movies: the villain is a violent anarchist (Oscar Homolka) who owns and operates a neighborhood theater, and his greatest act of sabotage will be to place a bomb in a can of film. With Sylvia Sidney and John Loder. 76 min. —Dave Kehr
Young and Innocent
Made in 1937 by a relatively young and innocent Alfred Hitchcock, this British feature tends to be overshadowed by The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, but actually it’s only the uncharismatic casting that holds it back from being one of the most entertaining of Hitchcock’s English films. Derrick de Marney is the young man on the run, accused of a murder he didn’t commit; Nova Pilbeam is the ingenue who believes his story and helps him look for the killer. The film is as much romance as thriller, as Hitchcock develops the erotic frisson of the dangers the young couple faces (most memorably, a car drops suddenly into the earth, an early association of sex and vertigo). And then there are the odd lyrical touches—the description of a child’s birthday party, a shot of a flock of gulls circling a beach—that would resurface 25 years later as full-bodied images in The Birds. With Basil Radford. 83 min. —Dave Kehr