To prefer Alfred Hitchcock's British films to his American ones, wrote Robin Wood in 1965 in his influential Hitchcock's Films, is "analogous to preferring The Comedy of Errors to Macbeth ". Wood's branding of the two dozen features directed by Hitchcock prior to his departure for Hollywood in 1939 as "little more than 'prentice work" did not pass unchallenged: both Roy Armes and Raymond Durgnat cogently argued otherwise, and Wood himself later retracted his "embarrassingly ignorant and supercilious dismissal".
But the impression has lingered - abetted by Hitchcock himself in his book-length interview with Francois Truffaut - that the British films, though often fresh, lively and inventive, do not merit the depth of analysis invited by the American work; that they lack complexity.
If anyone still harbours that belief, Charles Barr's new book should put paid to it. Setting out to rehabilitate not just Hitchcock's early work, but the culture - both literary and cinematic - that gave rise to it, he examines each film in detail, tracing key themes and elements across the oeuvre, noting the technical mastery and formal audacity evident almost from the outset of Hitchcock's directorial career. As early as the silent Downhill (19), Hitchcock is exploring ways (as he later put it) "to embody the dream in the reality, in solid, unblurred images". A vehicle for matinee idol Ivor Novello, who had starred in Hitchcock's first hit film The Lodger, Downhill may not be, as Barr concedes, a major entry in the canon; but it is intriguing to see the ambitious young director deploying expressionistic camera techniques and delirious subjective imagery that point forward to Vertigo 40 years later.
Part of Barr's agenda is to rescue from neglect some of the more disregarded early films, such as The Farmer's Wife (1928). This is generally written off as a mere "filmed play", a bucolic comedy unsuited to Hitchcock's gifts. But Barr demonstrates, aided by a series of well-chosen frame enlargements, how Hitchcock was already conveying nuances of mood and atmosphere through subtleties of cutting and framing. Three years later, in the early sound era, Hitchcock tackled another adaptation from the stage, John Galsworthy's expose of English class-based hypocrisies, The Skin Game . This too has received short shrift from most critics: "endlessly talky" was Donald Spoto's brusque verdict. Barr, though, finds evidence of the director's growing stylistic and narrative confidence. He even finds something to praise in the otherwise dire pseudo-Straussian froth of Waltzes from Vienna (1933).
Occasionally this advocacy of neglected films verges on special pleading. Writing of yet another filmed play, the stagey Juno and the Paycock (1929),Barr observes: "If this is 'theatricality', it is a theatricality rendered in cinematic terms, since the framing of the action is identical for all spectators, as it never can be in the theatre." Film, in other words, is different from theatre, since it is recorded by a camera; true enough, but hardly revelatory. There is a touch of revisionism, too, in Barr's treatment of those early films that other critics have singled out as underrated, which leads him to denigrate The Ring (19), the most technically adventurous of Hitchcock's silents, and Rich and Strange (1931). The latter, a rare excursion for Hitchcock into social satire, recalls the contemporaneous Evelyn Waugh of Vile Bodies , with a bleak spiritual abyss gaping behind a facade of brittle comedy, and arouses regret that the film's box-office failure discouraged Hitchcock from ever exploring the same territory again.
But any minor weaknesses in English Hitchcock are far outweighed by its value in terms of research and critical insight. Barr sets out to do justice, not only to some of the lesser known films, but to the writers to whom Hitchcock owed so much, both as collaborators and as providers of source material. He was steeped in the literary culture of his native country, and well into his Hollywood period still cited John Buchan and Galsworthy as major influences on his work, while drawing on British plays and novels - Patrick Hamilton's Rope , Jack Trevor Story's The Trouble with Harry , Daphne du Maurier's The Birds - as material for his films. Hitchcock often claimed a cavalier disregard for his sources: "What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea I just forget about the book and start to create cinema," he told Truffaut. But as Barr shows, this was by no means always the case. Sabotage (1936) diverges widely from its original, Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent , but Rich and Strange sticks closely to the novel, by the Australian writer Dale Collins, from which it is drawn.
Barr does an invaluable job of unearthing forgotten authors such as Collins and comparing novel (or play) and film - something, as he notes with pardonable pride, few other writers on Hitchcock have troubled to do.
He also counters the common assumption - one, again, that Hitchcock rarely felt obliged to correct - that the director "was, effectively, the sole author of his films". The contributions made by Hitchcock's main screenwriters of the British period, Eliot Stannard, Charles Bennett and Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville, are given long overdue recognition, along with all the other writers who lent a hand - many of them in the scrupulously detailed and annotated 30-page filmography. The more obscure entries among the British films are not the only ones that benefit from Barr's lucid analysis; he also offers fresh and stimulating insights into relatively familiar fare such as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). This year, Hitchcock's centenary, has seen the expected outpouring of new books to add to the already mountainous heap devoted to cinema's most famous director, and it might have seemed that, by this stage, there could hardly be much more to be said. English Hitchcock proves otherwise, and makes essential and enlightening reading for anyone interested in Hitchcock as film-maker and as phenomenon.
Philip Kemp is a freelance writer and film historian.
Author - Charles Barr
ISBN - 0 906506 13 1
Publisher - Cameron and Hollis
Price - £17.95
Pages - 255