After nearly four years of missteps, Alfred Hitchcock found his once & future voice reteaming with producer Michael Balcon on this smash international thriller.* The well-known story, of a married couple forced to keep silent about a planned political assassination after their child is kidnapped, should feel old hat after so many copycat versions & its general influence, yet the film still feels fresh, as witty & exciting as it must have seemed in ‘34. Hitchcock manages to pack everything into 75 quickstep minutes as one suspenseful delight follows another leading up to double whammy set-pieces at the Albert Hall concert shooting and an inner-city gun-battle siege between cops & conspirators. Peter Lorre makes his exceptional English-language debut as a bemused, but deadly villain and Pierre Fresnay makes a real impression in his brief role as the early victim with the info. (His death dance with an unspooling web of yarn makes for an astonishing bit of visual sophistication.) Everyone loves young Nova Pilbeam as the nabbed kid (including Hitch, who gave her the lead in YOUNG AND INNOCENT/’37), but the secret to the film’s continuing kick may be the lively relationship between Leslie Banks & Edna Best as the well-matched parents. Coming out the same year as THE THIN MAN/’34, both films had revolutionary ideas about marriage as bantering romantic fun, a sexually charged courtship that continued after the vows.
DOUBLE-BILL: Even if you’ve seen this before, the recent Criterion restoration is a treat . . . and a wonder for those who only know it from Public Domain issues. Hitch famously remade this during his great mid-‘50s run @ Paramount (with James Stewart & Doris Day/’56) and it remains the most undervalued of all his American masterworks. The light tone of '34 is replaced by a sobersided look at a troubled marriage. (The film appears to have been something of a love letter to Hitch’s wife Alma during a troubled period in their marriage.) It’s less fun, but deeper than the original, only falling short in a failed bit of comic relief at a taxidermy shop. Think of it as the Hitchcock pic Ingmar Bergman never got around to making.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *While the film was an international success, it earned little coin in Britain because the head of British Gaumont’s theater chain disliked the pic so much he refused to give it decent bookings. His token release allowed him to claim it as a Box-Office failure . . . and a place for himself in the ‘I’d Rather Be Right’ movie exec Hall of Fame.