By Sarah Jost
This past week I had the opportunity to attend two very different works by Alfred Hitchcock. I nearly wrote that I had the pleasure of attending these events, but that doesn’t quite describe the strangely unsettled feeling one often is left with after a seeing a Hitchcock piece. However, in this instance that was only the case for one of the pieces: a showing of Vertigo at the BFI Southbank in London.
I had always wanted to see a film at that lovely, revered institution along the Thames, and was thrilled when a friend invited me to a screening of Vertigo as part of their four-month long The Genius of Hitchcock series. The BFI movie-going experience was what I had always hoped: a labyrinthine venue of numerous cosy cinemas with big red armchairs and two thriving cafes packed to the brim with people of all ages and backgrounds, even at 8:30pm on a Sunday night. The Hitchcock movie-going experience was also what I hoped, and quite expected after seeing many of his films, yet it still left me feeling surprisingly unnerved.
Though at times meandering and melodramatic, Vertigo is perhaps all the more disturbing for its subtle and almost sudden spiral into the emotional, psychological, and physical abuse of a woman. Watching a woman desperately succumb to the abuses of a deranged man was infinitely scarier than both The Birds and Psycho, two of Hitchcock’s notoriously hair-raising films. I spent the majority of the just over two-hour film merely enjoying the glimpse into the fashion, speech, and design of the 1950s. In seemingly the last thirty minutes, however, everything came to a startlingly unnerving head. I left the cinema with an uneasy feeling that lasted until the next day.
Two days later, I had the opportunity to see Patrick Barlow’s theatrical adaptation of the film The 39 Steps, which Hitchcock adapted from a novel by John Buchan. Nearly the opposite of Vertigo, the play is a hilariously British romp through a tale of murder and intrigue. With many classic Hitchcock features such as a seductive blonde, misogyny, and suspense intact, and often poked fun at, the Criterion Theatre’s production is both an homage and farce of the great British filmmaker.
The farcical element of the play is aided by two of the cast of four playing all but the two leads from the film. This is carried out adroitly by consummate comedians Paul Bigley and Stephen Critchlow, both of whom must be commended for expertly playing their numerous hysterical characters without ever descending into overacting or playing selfish to the audience.
The lead roles of Richard Hannay and Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret are perfected by two young British actors to watch out for: Andrew Alexander and Catherine Bailey. Alexander is so flawless in his portrayal of the quintessentially British Hannay that it is difficult to imagine any other actor ever filling his shoes. Bailey, with her classically ingenuous face, matches Alexander pace for pace. Both are able to execute the physical comedy and subtle nuances with equal adeptness. The 39 Steps is a laugh-out-loud joy from start to finish, and Alexander and Bailey should have quite the careers ahead of them.
And so it turned out that Barlow’s cleverly comical Hitchcock adaptation was just the foil I needed to Hitchcock’s supremely unsettling Vertigo. Though The 39 Steps‘ humour was thanks to Barlow, Hitchcock was not without the ability to amuse, as exemplified in my favourite Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes, which both productions made me look forward to watching again. Thirty-two years after his death, Hitchcock is consistently able to entertain and unsettle. Such is the mark of a true genius.