Hitchcock's First Five-Star Entry
Interplanetary Funksmanship | Vanilla Suburbs, USA | 11/26/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I agree with Alfred Hitchcock in his assessment that his 1956 remake of this 1934 classic was a superior movie. However, that's only when pressed. Really, despite mostly having the same story line and climactic scene at the Royal Albert Hall, they are two different films.
It's not just because one is in black and white, whereas the other is in color, or that one features British and the other American leads. It's more intangible than that. It has to do with pacing, and that this is a more tongue-in-cheek thriller than the remake. Also, while Hitch never stopped pushing the envelope on visual effects, it's so interesting watching this one, because he was learning as he made it. When Edna Best faints upon learning that her daughter (Nova Pilbeam) has been kidnapped, the camera movement simulates the room spinning round and round. It's a sort of primitive shot, one that Hitch didn't smoothly master until the 1940s. That said, it cannot be denied that Hitchcock's primary visual contribution at this point was in applying the German Expressionist montage sensibility to the British cinema, which was theretofore fledgling.
The acting is all right from the good guys, but it's the villains who are most impressive in this version. Peter Lorre as Abbott is creepy, and quite a polished actor, whereas the British actors were a little awkward in reciting their lines. Lorre was smooth, confident, volatile and simply a pleasure to watch. Cicily Oates as Abbott's religious sect "front" is simply mesmerizing when she hypnotizes Leslie Bank's comic relief friend, Clive. There are some stark Expressionistic shots of her through a glass lens, and as the light intensifies on her face, so does her perverse concentration. Almost zombie, cultlike.
The climax at the Royal Albert Hall was Hitch's largest scale set piece, a tour de force of sight and sound. Arthur Benjamin's soundtrack and his "Storm Clouds Cantata really raised the bar for movie music in those early days of sound, and even influenced Hitch's most famous composer, Bernard Herrmann, decades later when he re-scored the 1956 version. Herrmann had such admiration and respect for Benjamin's Cantata, that he used it intact, even doubling some of the parts and lengthening the score.
All of that said, don't just watch this for academic reasons. It's hugely entertaining, and has lots of great gags and suspense."