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Alfred Hitchcock's British Thrillers at LACMA

Dame May Whitty, Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes
Robert Donat in The 39 Steps
Dame May Whitty, Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes (top); Robert Donat in The 39 Steps (bottom)

On Nov. 27-28, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will present the last four films in its “Hitchcock: The British Thrillers” series. They are:

  • The 39 Steps (1935), starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll;
  • Number 17 (1932), featuring the now-forgotten John Stuart and Anne Grey;
  • The Lady Vanishes (1938), starring Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood, Dame May Whitty, and a cast of first-rate supporting players, including future Oscar winner Paul Lukas;
  • Young and Innocent (1937), with Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney.

The 39 Steps is the film that turned Alfred Hitchcock into an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. The film goes from one situation to another without making any sense whatsoever, much like North by Northwest 24 years later. If you don't mind plot abysses and absurd near-death experiences, The 39 Steps can be quite entertaining. If you do, well, check it out anyhow: The talented – and unfortunately way underused – Robert Donat is delightful as the hero, while Madeleine Carroll is everything a Hitchcock blonde should be – and more. As a plus, there's a rare early film appearance by stage star Peggy Ashcroft, best known for her Oscar-winning role as Mrs. Moore in David Lean's A Passage to India.

The Lady Vanishes is my favorite among Hitchcock's British films. In fact, it's one of my favorite Hitchcock films, period. It offers a complex plot (don't bother attempting to unravel it) about the disappearance of an old lady who may never have existed, spies, counter-spies, and all-around marvelous performances, from Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, to scene stealers Dame May Whitty (as the disappearee), Paul Lukas (in his villanous days), Basil Radford, Cecil Parker, Naunton Wayne, Linden Travers, and Mary Clare.

Both Number 17 and Young and Innocent are minor Hitchcock efforts, worth looking at as curiosities. Stage-trained Nova Pilbeam seemed at one point to be about to become a major star, but that never happened. She retired from films following her second marriage (to BBC radio journalist Alexander Whyte) in 1950. Nova Pilbeam turned 90 this past Nov. 15.

Schedule and film information from LACMA's press release:

The 39 Steps

November 27 | 7:30 pm

This civilized thriller follows the escapades of Donat, a secret service agent who is implicated in a murder. Police and members of an occult spy ring relentlessly pursue him across the Scottish moors as he tries to clear himself by finding the real killers. The film builds to one of Hitchcock's finest climaxes: a music hall where “Mr. Memory” answers riddles on stage while the heavies stalk Donat through the audience. “Hitchcock rates The 39 Steps as one of his favorite films. He feels that its tempo is perfect. There is no dead footage, and the audience's absorption in the web of intrigue creates the impression of extremely fast pace. Hitchcock once commented, 'What I liked were the sudden switches and the jumping from one situation to another with such rapidity. Donat leaping out of the window of the police station with half a handcuff on, and immediately walking into a Salvation Army Hall… 'Thank God you've come, Mr. so-and-so,' they say and put him on a platform. Then a girl comes along with two men and takes him by car to the police station, but it's not really to the police station…. The rapidity of the switches, that's the great thing about it.”—Richard A. Harris, Michael S. Lasky, The Complete Films of Alfred Hitchcock.

1935/b&w/87 min. | Scr: Charles Bennet, Alma Reville, Ian Hay; dir: Alfred Hitchcock; w/ Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll

Number 17

November 27 | 9:10 pm

An old dark house where a rogue's gallery of baddies gathers is the starting point for a rapid flow of dramatic entrances, mysterious strangers, impersonations, reverses and reveals. Along the way we discover a handcuffed corpse, a stolen necklace, a prowling detective and a female crook who falls for him. At the climax, as a train hurtles through a station en route to destiny, Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of a wooden sign that reads: “Stop Here for Dainty Teas!” Hitchcock's seventeenth feature film is “deliriously and irresistibly comic… a charming film to the extent that it shows us a grownup child playing with his favorite toys.”— Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.

1932/b&w/62 min. | Scr: Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Rodney Ackland; dir: Alfred Hitchcock; w/ Leon M. Lion, Anne Grey

The Lady Vanishes

November 28 | 7:30 pm

When dotty old Miss Froy vanishes from a trans-European train that is snowbound in the Balkans, a poor musician and a beautiful heiress team up to uncover a nest of spies while falling in love. The final and snappiest of Hitchcock's British thrillers, it blends wit, invention, suspense and charm in a way that only Graham Greene has matched on the printed page. “Some of the finest examples of Hitchcock's touches . . . directed with such skill and velocity that it has come to represent the quintessence of screen suspense.”—Pauline Kael.
1938/b&w/96 min. | Scr: Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder; dir: Alfred Hitchcock; w/ Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Dame May Whitty

Young and Innocent

November 28 | 9:15 pm

A young man, accused of murder, is pursued by the police as he and his lovely companion search the Cornish countryside for the real killer. The chase is played out against the gentle charm of the rural surroundings, but as the couple's panic mounts and terror lurks at every turn, the seemingly serene landscape grows ugly and threatening. “This underrated thriller … takes a common plot, a young man wrongly accused of murder who tries to discover the real murderer, and adds a great script, great acting, and of course great directing by the master of suspense himself.”—Britmovie.

1937/b&w/82 min. | Scr: Charles Bennett, Edwin Greenwood, Anthony Armstrong, Gerald Savoury, Alma Reville; dir: Alfred Hitchcock; w/ Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney

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