Like many cinephiles, I feel that there have been certain landmark experiences in my moviegoing life. I can’t say for sure which film was my first – it may have been Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1958), though I’ve a terrible suspicion it may have been a Pat Boone musical called State Fair (1962). But I remember the first film that made me feel I was almost grown-up (55 Days in Peking, 1963), my first ‘X’ film (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), the first film I saw as part of a date (Midnight Cowboy, 1969), and the film that changed my thinking about cinema and made me want to devote my working life to the movies (Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, 1972, seen right in the middle of the front row of the Cambridge Arts Cinema during the film’s opening run).
But my first conscious encounter with a director came through television: it was a BBC season devoted to Alfred Hitchcock. I must have been in my early teens at the time, and having heard my older cousins go on about him after they’d been to see Psycho (1960), I wanted to find out what the fuss was about, so I insisted I be allowed to stay up late every Friday evening for the duration of the season. Happily, since there was no school to worry about on Saturdays, my parents gave their consent.
I was already familiar with Hitch as a TV celebrity, of course – his chinlessness and distinctive way of speaking reminded me of my uncle’s father – but until the season I had no idea what he, or indeed any other film director, actually did. More than anyone back then, Hitch was the perfect specimen to examine in that regard, since so many of his films feature those thematic motifs and stylistic flourishes we’ve come to recognise as aspects of ‘the Hitchcock touch’.
Only much later on – after seeing Cries and Whispers, in fact – did I begin to realise that Hitch was not unique, and that many other directors had a discernible touch of their own. But to the teenage me, films like Sabotage (1936), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942) and so on were a revelation.
If memory serves, Psycho was included in that season, but even if it wasn’t, I certainly recall my first encounter with it as an electrifying experience. For many years it remained my absolute favourite of Hitchcock’s films; even after I managed to see the long-unavailable Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), they couldn’t dislodge it from my affections.
But in the past decade, something has happened. As I’ve rewatched, reconsidered and reassessed those movies which I count among his greatest, Psycho has finally been displaced. And much as I love the polish, sophistication and dark undercurrents of his best Hollywood films, my number one spot is now occupied by a British Hitchcock.
Psycho I still love for its black humour, its switchback narrative and its expert, almost subversive manipulation of our emotions, just as I’ve always adored 1963’s The Birds (and no, they don’t need to be a metaphor or a symbol, just as long as they present a lethal threat to the humans in the movie) for its semi-abstract exploration of the psychopathology of fear.
There are other strong contenders, too – for my own personal top dozen, see below – but in recent years there is one film I’ve revisited even more often than Psycho, The Birds and the likewise irresistible The Lady Vanishes, and that is The 39 Steps (1935).
I know its model shots and backdrops look amateurish next to the effects to be found in most of Hitchcock’s Hollywood work (though he never lost his taste for dodgy matte paintings and rear projection); I know some of the espionage stuff seems shaky and dated (but then again it was only a MacGuffin!); but the film has such energy, spirit and wit… and, rather less common in his work, such warmth and tenderness.
The brief scenes shared by Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) and the young wife (Peggy Ashcroft) of the dour crofter are perhaps the most genuinely affecting in his entire oeuvre, but they’re also backed up by the chemistry between Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), by the protectiveness towards their runaway clients displayed by the mutually affectionate Scottish innkeepers, and by the surprisingly respectful interplay between Hannay and Mr Memory. (It’s even suggested that the various members of the treacherous enemy agent’s family might care deeply about one another!)
Whenever I watch The 39 Steps, I’m not only impressed, gripped and amused; I am also – always – touched, more than by any other of his films.
Oh yes, and before I forget, it includes one of the greatest lines in all Hitchcock, so good it even gets repeated. “What causes pip in poultry?”