This essay on the Sunday Cinematheque at the Chazen's ongoing Alfred Hitchcock series and this weekend's film, Young and Innocent, was written by UW Madison undergraduate student Blake Davenport. Young and Innocent screens in a 35mm print on Sunday, September 28 at 2 p.m. at the Chazen Museum of Art.
Young and Naïve: Getting to Know Hitchcock
By Blake Davenport
Upon entering my senior (yikes) year as communications major in the glorious film/radio/television track, one could say that I had a pretty “been there done that” attitude towards my studies. Classic Hollywood films? Done. Russian silent films? I’ve written some papers.
In any case, whilst weeding through the bevy of communications courses during the delightful process of schedule making, I just wasn’t finding a whole lot from which to take inspiration. Sure it would be great to take film from 1970s onward, but after a full semester of silent and classic films, I just wasn’t quite ready to leap over to a whole new era. At what might have been the pinnacle of my despair, I arrived at the bottom of the list and noticed a special topics class entitled The Films of Hitchcock.
“Hitchcock movies eh?” I pondered aloud while stuffing my face with whatever candy was lying around my apartment at the time (Sidenote: always keep candy in your home you’ll appreciate it and so will your guests). Although I was marginally familiar with “the classics” – Vertigo, The Birds and so on, I suddenly realized that there was a large absence in my filmic knowledge in the shape of a distinctive bald filmmaker. Determined to wrong this personal injustice, I fervently clicked on the enroll button and vowed that by the end of my fall semester I would become a Hitchcock EXPERT...or die trying.
Cut to 3 weeks into the new semester, and I now realize at how silly the full completion of this notion now seems. One can almost hear Norman Bates chuckling to himself as he stuffs birds in his parlor. Although strides are being made towards full Hitchcockian mastery, the challenge of grasping the intricacies and evolution of Hitchcock’s films turned out to be far more daunting than I had imagined. Quite literally, this is a director who hallmarked the element of suspense in film, while simultaneously carving out a distinctive voice that almost demands a full examination of his filmography.
Luckily for myself and any other Madison film buffs looking to sharpen up on Hitch knowledge, the UW Cinematheque has expanded their ever popular Hitchcock series into the fall semester, screening his works almost every Sunday from September to December at the Chazen Museum of Art. Presenting films and archival material spanning from Hitch’s early British career to the titular Hollywood era, the series offers a rare treat to cinephiles in exhibiting the material in original 35mm prints.
Kicking off on Septemebr 14, the series has already treated viewers to a pair of quite tonally different Hitchcock films, the romantic thriller Suspicion (1941) and a film from the height of his British career Sabotage (1936). Suspicion, starring Joan Fontaine and the ever affable Cary Grant, transports viewers into the psyche of an unstable marriage, as Fontaine’s wealthy socialite Lina is swept away by smooth talking Jonny who may or may not be who he says he is. Although it does play a bit melodramatic at times, the leads turn in a pair of excellent performances, most notably Fontaine, who received the only performance Academy Award ever for a Hitchcock film. In sharp contrast, Sabotage starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, ramps up the danger in classic British Hitch style, as Homolka’s Mr. Verloc finds himself the subject of a police investigation for his role in a terrorist organization.
Although there is much more that one can say about the above-mentioned titles, I thought it might be advantageous for us to switch gears and delve a little deeper into the 1937 caper Young and Innocent in anticipation of it’s screening this coming Sunday. In almost blatantly obvious fashion, the story sticks to Hitchcock’s old standby theme of “the wrongly accused man”as Derrick de Marney’s character, Robert, stands accused of murdering an actress he was having an affair with, after being seen running away from the body when he was really trying to get help. Complicating the action further is a belt from a missing raincoat washing up next to the strangled actress (in classic Hitch fashion he can’t find his damn raincoat), and a sum of 1200 pounds left in her will to the young actor. In a panic, Derrick escapes the courthouse and enlists the help of the constable’s young daughter (Nova Pilbeam) who becomes an accomplice in his plight to find his stolen coat and clear his name.
In any other director’s hands, Young and Innocent could easily have turned into a straightforward cat and mouse story, as the plot itself is very quick. Thankfully we have Hitchcock who, as master of tight plotting, incorporates a host of highly stylized scenes that elevate the suspense and danger of the film to a whole new level. The children’s party scene largely displays the classic Hitchcock irony as Robert and Erica have to literally duck out of the party during a game of blind-mans bluff in order to evade capture. Additionally, during the ever suspenseful chase episode later on, the couple narrowly avoids capture and death, speeding past a train just as it is about to pass in a scene that echoes Hitchcock’s later action scenes in films such as North by Northwest.
Perhaps the most stunning revelation, and one that makes the film worth seeing alone, occurs in the final unveiling of the antagonist. In a last ditch effort to Robert’s name, Erica and a tramp who knows the man who stole Robert’s coat by his signature eye twitch, attempt to go to the Grand Hotel in order to locate him. In a single masterful shot utilizing cranes and dollies, Hitchcock identifies the villain to the audience, while holding the suspense until the very last minute. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the ending provides a satisfying (and disturbing) textbook Hitchcock resolution that personally has me hungry for next weeks pick, Lifeboat.