Fans of Alfred Hitchcock would doubtless agree that the director was at his strongest in the early to mid-1940s, when he made "Shadow of a Doubt," "Lifeboat," "Spellbound" and "Notorious." So the discovery of two lost Hitchcock films made in the midst of that period is news indeed.
Unseen for more than 50 years, "Bon Voyage" and "Aventure Malgache" are fictional films, approximately half an hour each, made with French casts as propaganda during World War II. They will be shown in the University at Buffalo's new Student Union theater on the North Campus for one show only, Friday night at 11:30. (Also on the bill is the classic 1962 French adaptation of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.")
Hitchcock had long wanted to do something for the war effort, but was constrained by his contract with David O. Selznick. Selznick had already lost his biggest star, Vivien Leigh, when she broke her contract to return to Britain, and the independent producer was leery of losing any work time from his other biggest asset. It wasn't until late in 1943 that he finally agreed to let Hitchcock go to Britain -- but only on the condition that he work on the script to "Spellbound" while he was away.
The British Ministry of Intelligence asked Hitchcock to make two short films extolling the French Resistance. The Ministry had found ways to sneak films into Nazi-occupied France, and felt that something by a popular director with French actors and crews would do much for that country's sagging morale. (The cast is billed only collectively, as the "Moliere Players," for fear of reprisals against their families still living in France.)
But the ministry apparently wanted the Hitchcock name more than the Hitchcock touch. Though each film respectfully depicts the heroism of the French underground, they also display Hitchcock's characteristic distrust of authority. Propaganda is by definition one-sided and didactic, constraints that Hitchcock failed to observe. Finding the films more conducive to paranoia than to patriotism, the ministry sent Hitchcock home with a polite thank-you and tossed the reels into a dark closet, from which they were only recently rescued.
Using a flashback format, both films feature a frame story set in Britain where the leading characters recount experiences in occupied territory. "Bon Voyage" eavesdrops on a British soldier who has recently escaped from a German POW camp. Safely back in Britain, he describes to an intelligence officer how he and a fellow escapee made their way through France, always just one step ahead of the Nazis.
After he finishes his report, the intelligence officer fills in all of the missing details, and the same story of heroism and luck becomes one of espionage and treachery. Working with limited resources, Hitchcock turns his liabilities into assets, using his underdressed sets to create a mood of menace and claustrophobia. He's aided immeasurably by the expressionistic lighting of the great cinematographer Gunther Krampf, who photographed "Pandora's Box" and many other German films before fleeing his homeland in 1931.
Though "Bon Voyage" was shown a few times in France, "Aventure Malgache" was never distributed. It's not hard to see why: The impression it gives is of a France too divided among itself to rally against its enemies. Accurate it may have been, but as propaganda it's an utter failure.
Set in the French colony of Madagascar, the story focuses on a lawyer helping the underground move patriots into and out of the country. Their struggle is less against the Nazis, a known enemy, than it is against the bureaucrats of the Vichy government and the spies and collaborators in their own ranks. Hitchcock surely would have appreciated the irony that his film, though deemed useless for its intended purpose in its day, has survived as a document of a side of the war effort that is seldom discussed.