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Have You Seen…? Episode 6

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“Have You Seen…?” with David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talking about classic Hollywood films. Today’s topic is director Alfred Hitchcock, the first of several that will feature movies from the great filmmaker. Today David and Scott talk about The 39 Steps.

[Clip from The 39 Steps]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The 39 Steps?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen The 39 Steps and it's one of the early Hitchcock films that really made an impression on me.

DH: Yeah, Alfred Hitchcock, who we're going to talk about today is one of the most widely-known famous directors of all time. Even people who may not be sure if they've seen an Alfred Hitchcock film. They've heard of Alfred Hitchcock. And, you know, some of his films are household names; Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest. But I started us with The 39 Steps because that was one of his British films and a lot of Americans now, like the films I just named, the famous ones, those are all from when he made films in Hollywood, he came to Hollywood in 1940, and in his career of making about 50 feature films, a little over half of them were in that period from 1940, to 1976 in Hollywood. But Alfred Hitchcock was British. And he made about 15 or 20 feature films beginning in the silent era in England. And the later ones from about 1934 to 1938 are some of his best films. But people have forgotten about them now.

SVW: And The 39 Steps was one of his espionage films, too. And he made a lot of those spy type movies throughout his career.

DH: Yeah, he did. An another one right before The 39 Steps was another spy thriller in 1934, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which Hitchcock then remade in the 1950's as a big box office. You know, a color Technicolor film with James Stewart and Doris Day. He remade his own movie. It's a movie about people being caught up in an international espionage thriller. In both cases, their child is kidnapped, which raises the stakes and fear for the audience. And then some other ones that in that period, the British films; The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage, Secret Agent…but The 39 Steps is my favorite.

SVW: Remind me of the plot.

DH: It's just this…it's a wrong man story. So a man is on the run from both the police and international espionage people who are basically trying to steal state secrets from England and he can't go to the police, which is often a device Hitchcock uses, because the police are after him too because they think he's murdered someone. Because a spy was murdered.

SVW: So he's doubly the wrong man.

DH: Right. So he's just on the run from everyone. But he's kind of figured out that the person who was murdered was a spy, he’s a good spy he just happens to run into. He’s murdered and she tells him, you know, “you've got to catch these people they're going to give away state secrets.” He's also trying to solve the mystery. What a marvelous about it, his British films, Hitchcock always had a good sense of humor. There's humor in all his movies, some more than others even made a couple of straight up comedies.

SVW: The Trouble with Harry.

DH: The Trouble with Harry, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, he actually made a straight up, romantic comedy with Carole Lombard. So, the comic relief but also the romance in it is that he ends up…there's this woman he ends up with and they end up handcuffed together. So they're fleeing, they hate each other, but they're literally handcuffed together, stuck with each other and It reminds me of the film that was made the year before in Hollywood, huge famous film, It Happened One Night with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert where there they're kind of stuck together.

SVW: They're not handcuffed, but they're stuck together on a road trip. And like you said, they hate each, course eventually…

DH: She especially hates him, he's a reporter is trying to dig up dirt on her. There's no way Hitchcock wasn't aware of that when he was making this film a year later. So there's a that light touch to it. But at the same time, it's a good thriller.

SVW: There's also the scene where the main character has to get up and give a speech and he doesn't know what he's supposed to talk about. And he just gives this sort of stream of consciousness, nonsensical string of words.

DH: Yeah, it's hilarious. Again, that's one of those devices that Hitchcock uses to get the audience to identify because who hasn't been put in that position at some time, whether it's in school or work, all of a sudden you've got to get up and you've got to give a speech and this is almost like a bad dream you have about it where you've got to get up and give a speech. But you don't even know what you're supposed to talk about.

SVW: Well you're mentioning, like the conventions of Hitchcock, there's also the Mcguffin, which is a plot device. But Hitchcock famously said it really is about nothing. It's just something to motivate the characters.

DH: Yeah, in in in, especially in the ones where it's there's a chase or whatever. Like in The 39 Steps, it turns out to be the secret for some kind of new aircraft. But so what? It could be anything.

[Clip from The 39 Steps]

SVW: And then there are the essential cinematic techniques in grammar that comes out of Hitchcock.

DH: That's the like little secret about Hitchcock, right? So Hitchcock it. And I think it's what makes him arguably one of, you know, the handful of greatest filmmakers ever because he's endlessly entertaining, people enjoyed his movies, and they don't have to be analytical about him. But, movie themes that are 60 to 80 years ago are still studied in film school.

He was incredible innovator. He was an artist.

You know, he was always doing interesting things for the camera with editing, always showing interesting points and he was a very visual filmmaker. So it's just a pleasure and an interest to watch. He’s always unspooling and revealing things for the viewer and he also has incredible music scores, right? Famous music score.

SVW: Yeah. There are. Some critics have said the music in his films are also like a character in the movie.

DH: Yeah, he valued it deeply. It was really important to him of who did the score and he was involved in that.

SVW: He also had a lot of control. He admired actors, but he had a lot of control over the actor's. He wasn't into method acting. He wanted the actors to like stick explicitly to the script.

DH: You and I both have some experience with film making and it is impossible to make a film that turns out exactly as you picture it.

I mean, he's got probably got as close as anyone. But, you have to make changes as you go along. Sometimes just the circumstances of the location or the weather or your actors, you know, one of them, all of us and breaking arm and they're in a cast and you've got to finish the movie.

Or where just things come up that are more interesting. One, the most famous ones with Hitchcock, is in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

SVW: So The Man Who Knew Too Much original or the remake?

DH: The remake., so this is with so James Stewart. The climax is in, you know, Symphony Hall and the Symphony's playing and the kidnapped child is somewhere in there and James Stewart and Doris Day are trying to find their kid. Doris Day sings the song “Que Sera Sera”, amd the Kid sings along with that. James Stewart just trying to track him down and famously, James Stewart is running up the stairs to try and get to where the kit is. And he had this huge amount of dialogue that he had to say. And he even told the story of this later on that he practiced and rehearsed and learn the lines really well, so he could deliver all this dialogue as he was running up the stairs and they did it and they shot it. And Hitchcock said, you know what, we don't need it. We're just going to throw it out. And then they re-shot with him saying nothing. He said just act, you know, just showed emotion with your face, what you're feeling and they did it that way.

And that's a famous ending. It may not be one of Hitchcock's greatest films, but one of its more famous things is the last 12 minutes or so. The movie has no dialogue and all it's all just taking place in the symphony Hall. So you see the music and you see it's all done that like a silent film most except for music soundtrack.

So there's a good example of Hitchcock literally making a decision, on the set, to throw out like 2 pages of script.

SVW: So then and that kind of goes to his idea that he liked to have simple and linear stories. They were interesting. You know, there were entertaining but he doesn't want to get into complexities.

DH: Yeah, he does. There are complexities and I mean, come on some of his movies, like Vertigo is very complex.

SVW: That is true.

Dh: So with the movies sometimes, he takes you and you think that things are one way and then there are another and he reveals things.

But it is true that he could summarize any the plot of any of his films in a sentence or 2, easily, he goes from point A to point B and usually are resolved in conventional way. Now something like Vertigo or movie called Like Suspicion where you have major stars who actually may be much worse than they seem. That's a little different for him. But most of the time, it's pretty clear cut. Yeah.

[movie clip]

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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