A household name thanks to movies like Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window (amongst others), Alfred Hitchcock was a true master of his art. For more than half a century he directed over 50 feature films, pioneered innovative cinematography techniques and established a reputation for keeping audiences on the edge of their seats the world over.
Thankfully many of Hitchcock’s earlier works are available from everyone’s favorite collection of public domain materials, the Internet Archive. If you enjoyed last week’s deadly dose of free horror then maybe you owe yourself a slice of Hitchcock too.
Here are 5 early films directed by “The Master of Suspense”, which you can download or watch right now in your browser .
The earliest film on the list is this still-watchable silent mystery crime drama starring Ivor Novello. London has been struck by a bout of mysterious killings and a murderer by the name of “The Avenger” is on the lose, taking the lives of innocent blonde women.
Mrs Bunting is a landlady with a beautiful blonde daughter who just happens to be courting a detective involved with the “Avenger” case. When an unnerving stranger turns up on Mrs Bunting’s doorstep looking for a room to rent, the household begins to suspect the lodger (played by Novello) might be hiding a gruesome secret.
The film was re-made (minus Hitchcock) only five years later in 1932 as the talking picture The Phantom Fiend, also starring Ivor Novello.
For many this film will require little introduction, especially considering its reputation as one of The Master’s finest. The 39 Steps tells the now old-hat story of an innocent man on the run, trying to clear his name.
The innocent man is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visitor to London who meets Anna, a woman on the run from secret agents. After agreeing to help her by hiding her in his flat, Anna mysteriously dies in the night. Fearing that he may be accused of her death, Richard goes on the run, suffering at the hands of a series of unfortunate events.
Hitchcock’s blend of suspense and dark comedy is the real meat-and-gravy here, as well as some technically impressive production techniques for the time, such as the match cut – a woman’s scream dissolving into the hissing of a steam train whistle.
Secret Agent (1936) [IMDb]
Certainly not one of Hitchcock’s best-known films, Secret Agent follows a trio of British spies on a mission to Switzerland to determine the identity of a German agent and stop him before he carries out his own mission. As expected, suspense is handled and generated in the signature Hitchcock way with regular doses of the director’s humor thrown in for good measure.
Switzerland’s traditions of chocolate, mountains and folk dancing are embraced here, without infringing on the severity of the plot. Overall the movie deals with the typical “spy scenario” in its own, unorthodox way, applying more of a human-touch to our hero rather than the usual James Bond cool-as-a-cucumber leads we’ve gotten used to.
Young and Innocent a.k.a. The Girl Was Young (1937) [IMDb]
When an estranged husband murders his ex-wife out of jealousy, one of her young lovers discovers her body on the beach. In an unfortunate twist his efforts to raise the alarm are misconstrued as a getaway attempt, and soon he finds himself on the run from the law for a murder he did not commit.
After escaping the courthouse he was due to stand trial in, Robert befriends a police constable’s daughter and goes on the run, determined to prove his innocence. Similar to The 39 Steps in both plot and quality, Young and Innocent is another shining example of films that simply don’t get made any more.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) [IMDb]
Iris Henderson is travelling through Europe via steam train when she meets and talks with the kind and elderly Miss Froy. After falling asleep, Iris awakes to find Miss Froy nowhere to be seen. After raising the alarm and notifying the other passengers, nobody seems to have any recollection of her.
Despite a psychologist suggesting to Iris that Miss Froy might never have existed anywhere other than her head, Iris is determined that something sinister is taking place and takes it upon herself to investigate.
The Lady Vanishes is highly acclaimed and regarded by many as Hitchcock’s best British pre-Hollywood film. Don’t let the black and white put you off, this is one film that still impresses despite its age.
A collection of trailers for Hitchcock’s films, starting with The 39 Steps and leading all the way up to Family Plot. Included are trailers for Frenzy, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. If this article has peaked your interest in Hitchcock, this collection of trailers might help you decide what to watch next!
Not only did Alfred Hitchcock direct movies, create suspense in his own special way and embrace the darker side of comedy – he also pioneered many techniques we now take for granted. Technical innovations, plot devices and of course his list of regular cameos are what made this director so special. Enjoy!
Any favorite Hitchcock films and moments? Does it get much better than Rear Window? Personal picks from this list? Let us have it in the comments!
Image Credit: Jack Mitchell