We happened to see this one back-to-back with another Hitchcock film, Sabotage, made seven years later. It was interesting to note the similarities. In both films a woman kills a man. In this one, the man was trying to rape her. In the other, the victim was her husband who had set off a bomb that killed her brother. Both eminently justifiable, most people would say. In both films her lover finds out she is the killer. In both films the lover is a cop. In both films the woman is consumed with guilt and only wants to confess. In both films the cop sees that it is possible to get away without confessing to anything. And in both films, that’s what he chooses to do. They get away scott-free! That didn’t happen much in the films of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Of course, neither killing was what you’d call a heinous crime, especially the first one, but still.
This one has quite a weird history. They began shooting it as a silent film, but the producer decided to shoot a few scenes in that newfangled “synchronized sound” process. Hitchcock thought this was a stupid idea, and so he shot almost the whole movie in silent and sound versions. And in fact, both versions were released, since the majority of theaters in the UK were not yet wired for sound. Some critics think the silent version is better. I don’t know. When our DVD started I assumed I was getting the silent version, since about 10 minutes go by with no voices, though people talk to each other. But no, this was the sound version, and it booms in at a police station. The sound is very primitive, with levels all over the place from inaudible to thunderous, sometimes filled with static, sometimes quite clear.
Even more interesting … the female lead, Anny Ondra, was Czech, with a thick accent. This was deemed unacceptable in the new era. But they were shooting two versions. What to do, what to do? The solution was to have an actress out of camera range speak the lines, and Ondra would lip-sync! It made for a slightly weird performance. But they had no choice if they wouldn’t accept her accent. It wasn’t possible to do any fancy sound tricks back then, no looping, no ADR. It was all recorded on the set.
The story is slow, as most were in those days, but the camera work was pretty good considering the limitations of the primitive sound stage. There is the usual overacting, but I was impressed with Ondra’s reactions after she had killed the man. Her eyes wide, her bee-stung lips pursed, she looks on the edge of madness without overplaying or emotive histrionics. The picture ends with another Hitchcock trademark, the chase though a landmark—in this case the British Museum—and final scene atop the dome that arches over the library. Crash! The glass breaks, he falls through, and the cops look down and wince. Wonder how many scholars he wiped out down there?