Bob and Jill (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are holidaying in Switzerland with their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), partaking in some kind of competition where Jill gets to show off her clay pigeon shooting skills, and they get the chance to meet up with their family friend Louis (Pierre Fresnay), who is involved in the skiing tournament. On the last evening of Louis’ stay he is shot whilst dancing with Jill, and his dying words set in motion a mission for the couple, as they must keep the contents of a hidden message secret, because their daughter’s life is at risk.
Before I start, I haven’t seen the remake yet. I’m planning to watch it later this month (it’s on the List as well) but I wanted to watch the original first to see why Hitchcock felt it was in need of improving. It certainly has areas that could be further developed, so my anticipation for watching the remake has increased somewhat, because despite the flaws I really liked the story here, or at least the potential for what it could have been. The idea of a man (because it is Bob who eventually takes the lead here when investigations get under way) being forced to engage with a deadly situation he knows nothing about intrigued me, especially when the secret service, for whom Louis was working, come calling, for Lawrence cannot get their help as his kidnapped daughter will be harmed if her parents talk to anyone about the note they found.
As with much of Hitchcock’s work, there’s a strong stream of comedy running through it, with the scene involving Louis’ shooting largely featuring Louis and Jill dancing with an unravelling knitted garment tied to Louis’ back, so as they dance the entire hall becomes tangled up in a woollen web. This makes the shooting all the more shocking, as it’s immediately preceded by the comedy. Bob’s attempt to speak German is the traditional tactic of repeating what was just said but more slowly, with a vague foreign accent, and replacing the definite articles with “Der”, and I loved the scene between Bob and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) singing a conversation whilst they hide in a church. Elsewhere, however, there’s also great and gripping tension, such as at the dentist’s office that Bob heads to in search of Betty (following a clue, not simply on a whim that she’s having a filling removed), wherein the dentist (who it turns out pretty quickly is in on the scheme) interrogates Bob in the chair, rapidly ascertaining his latest patient could scupper the plans, leading to a struggle over who will anaesthetise whom and get away.
Cast-wise, Peter Lorre is the stand out (unsurprisingly he was the only face to appear on the most widely-seen of the posters, especially as this was just a few years after his incredible performance in M) and it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that he is the film’s main antagonist, seeing as it’s Peter Lorre, he’s got a scarred face and a blonde streak in his hair. Therefore, villain. (Apparently Lorre was married during the filming of the movie – almost literally – as he was on set both before and after the ceremony and, to save time, he kept the scar make-up on during the vows. Say what you will about Hitchcock’s film-making abilities, the guy was a bastard to his actors.) Lorre is great in the role, it was just a shame we didn’t spend more time with him, because he isn’t fully revealed as the villain until near the end of the second act.
A little after halfway through the version I watched I found myself completely lost and unsure of what was happening. I then discovered that whilst IMDb listed the film as being 75 minutes in length, the version I was watching was only 62 minutes long, so it’s safe to assume that I missed a scene or two in the middle. I’ve since read up on what I missed, and it all makes a great deal more sense to me now, but for a while there I was thinking this was either a terribly organised plot or I’d unknowingly fallen asleep for a short period (it’s been known to happen, I’ve still never seen all of Blade Runner because of this affliction).
The third act suffers from trying to add a thrilling, action-packed climax into an otherwise relatively low key film that really didn’t need one, and doesn’t know what to do with the one it’s been handed. A shoot-out takes place (which of course will lead to an opportunity for Jill to use her rifle skills seen earlier), but it’s oddly structured – the police spend a lot of time setting up locations in nearby houses, and are then never seen again – and also occurs entirely at night, so a lot of the action is difficult to make out. Some elements should have been played out for greater tension or more drama, and it was occasionally an issue trying to work out which character was which, but again that could be down to the missing scenes earlier on.
As it is, I’m looking forward to watching the remake much more now than I was before watching this one, if only so I can see roughly what I’d missed first time around. This isn’t a bad film, but seeing as there’s an improved version of the same movie, made by the same director and with far greater critical acclaim, I can’t see much reason to recommend this one. Whether or not I’ll agree once I’ve seen the remake, you’ll just have to wait and see.
Choose Life 6/10