Thursday, July 10, 2008

A Neglected Early Hitchcock Masterpiece

Two of Alfred Hitchcock's films made in Britain in the 1930's are universally recognized as masterpieces, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). For the latter movie Hitchcock received the Best Director award from the New York Film Critics Circle. During this period Hitchcock directed two other pictures that are also highly regarded, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Sabotage (1936), as well as several other lesser movies. But in 1937 he directed a film that to my mind is very nearly the equal of his two masterpieces of the period and which has never received the acclaim it deserves: Young and Innocent (originally released in the U.S. as The Girl Was Young).

In the movie, writer Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) is falsely accused of murder. Tisdall saw the real killer but does not know who he is; he knows only that the man has a pronounced squint in one eye. During a court hearing in the small English town where he has been jailed, Tisdall manages to escape and hide in a car. The car happens to belong to Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam, the kidnapped daughter in The Man Who Knew Too Much), the daughter of the local constable. Erica then proceeds to help the fugitive escape and hide out, at first unwillingly, and later willingly as her romantic attraction to him grows.

The rest of the movie consists of the basic plot that Hitchcock had already used at least once before, in The Thirty-Nine Steps, and would continue to use several more times until it reached its apogee in North by Northwest. The innocent man must learn the truth and find the real culprit before the authorities, who are all the while pursuing him, capture him. If this happens, he will almost certainly be falsely convicted and jailed, for to everyone but the viewer all the evidence appears to indicate his guilt.

This basic plot was in truth merely an elaboration of the classic cinematic device that had been used to create suspense since the earliest silents and was based on the cross-cutting between parallel plots perfected by D. W. Griffith. There the cross-cutting was typically between the heroine in peril and the rescuer(s) racing to reach her. Will the villain succeed in achieving his evil intentions before the hero arrives? The device was used in everything from The Perils of Pauline style of melodrama—where the heroine is tied to the railroad tracks while the hero races a speeding train to save her—to more ambitious works like The Birth of a Nation. In this brilliant but egregiously racist landmark film, Lillian Gish risks suffering the "fate worse than death" (to the sexually repressed Victorian mentality of Griffith, rape) before the Klan, attired in their full regalia and mounted on racing horses, reach her.

As well as its basic plot, Young and Innocent contains many other elements that are staples of the Hitchcock movie. The director has a brief cameo as a reporter outside the court building. His macabre sense of humor is in full evidence during the dinner scene with Erica's family, where while dining, her teenaged brothers discuss in graphic detail a grisly murder.

The movie also contains two of the elaborate set pieces that are the high points of any of Hitchcock's works. The one that serves as the movie's finale is well known and rightly so. It is set in a night club where Tisdall and Erica have finally tracked the murderer. The police are closing in on the pair, who still have no idea exactly who the killer is. As the police arrive, a dance band in blackface begins to play, and the camera slowly moves in a lengthy crane shot towards the band and keeps on moving to an extremely tight close-up of the eyes of the drummer at the very rear of the band. Suddenly one of the drummer's eyes, surrounded by its outrageous blackface make-up, begins to twitch involuntarily, Erica sees it, and the hero is saved.

The other memorable set piece served as the template for a device that Hitchcock used again and again. In Young and Innocent the sequence takes place in an abandoned mine. Tisdall and Erica, accompanied by one of those ubiquitous tramps of 1930's British fiction, are in her car racing away from pursuers and drive into the derelict mine to elude them. Suddenly the ground begins to give way beneath the car, which rapidly begins sinking into a collapsing mineshaft. Tisdall and the tramp manage to escape, but Erica is trapped in the car.

By this time the car is below floor level and all that can be seen of Erica is her outstretched arm reaching for help. In another tight close-up, Tisdall's hand is seen reaching for Erica's and finally taking it and pulling her to safety an instant before the mineshaft collapses completely and the car plunges to the bottom of it. Hitchcock was to repeat this device—based on fear of heights and of falling—or a variation of it again and again in later films. He used it in Sabotage, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and (again reaching its apogee) in the conclusion of North by Northwest.

If you like Hitchcock and you've never seen Young and Innocent, by all means make a point of catching it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.


Arms And Man said...

Found your blog via MSM, and thanks for the tip about TCM showing one of the few Hitch movies I have NOT seen. Just found this clip, which you might want to embed.

I decided to skip most of your post because I want to see Y&I first, but I will come back.

Richard Hourula said...

Rented "Young and Innocent" based on your blog and am glad I did. This is indeed a hidden Hitchcock gem.
(Didn't realize that I could have waited and recorded it on TCM until re-reading the entry after watching the movie -- oh well.)
Loved the two shots you mentioned particularly the zeroing in on the drummer's twitch. Coincidentally had just watched North by Northwest the night before. The parallels were obvious.
Nice job, R.D.