Ralph Thomas’s 1959 version of The 39 Steps is often used to illustrate the genius of Alfred Hitchcock – by contrast. However, in The Clouded Yellow (1951) Thomas does a much better job of emulating the mood and drama of Hitchcock’s classic British chase films: Young and Innocent, and of course, The 39 Steps.
Trevor Howard stars as former secret service agent David Somers, who retires to the countryside to catalogue butterflies – including the titular ‘clouded yellow’. There he finds himself caught up in a murder mystery and helps the chief suspect, Sophie Malraux (Jean Simmons), escape. Like John Rambo in First Blood (but in a very British, cravat-wearing way), he uses his superior survival skills to evade the hapless police search parties.
Whereas Hitchcock would famously use a narrative device – the ‘MacGuffin’ – to set the story rolling (in Young and Innocent it is a raincoat belt that washes up alongside a body two minutes into the film), here the set-up takes some three quarters of an hour, but despite this the plot is no more convincing. Plausibility, Hitch would claim, was not really the point, but here the great effort spent creating a less flawed plot perhaps leads us to expect more. Somers is a professional spy and is never really in danger in the same way Hitch’s plucky amateurs Richard Hannay and Robert Tisdall are, and thus the level of suspense is lowered. Thomas is more concerned with telling the story and less interested than Hitchcock in manipulating the audience’s emotions. Although the film hints at Freudian notions of repressed memories, this is purely a plot device, and little else is made of it.
However, the film certainly matches (if not surpasses) the master with its varied and dramatic locations – the waterfall at Sourmilk Gill in the Lake District, the dark back alleys of Newcastle, tearooms in London and even a Chinese restaurant in Liverpool. Unlike Hitchcock’s British thrillers, the film is shot almost entirely on such locations – at times seeming like a precursor of the Free Cinema movement, especially with the wonderfully naturalistic performance from Maire O’Neill as the Guinness-supping landlady. There are few of the technical innovations – no sweeping camera movements, matte shots or back projections – that form the Hitchcock style but Thomas makes up for this with some stunningly framed shots, particularly in the Lake District scenes.
Of course, Hitchcock did not invent or own the couple-on-the-run film and it is perhaps unfair to compare The Clouded Yellow to his work. It was probably not made as a conscious homage in the same way as Polanski’s Frantic (1988) was, for instance. But it is difficult not to feel that the film is lacking the style, suspense and sense of humour that Hitchcock would have given such a project. In spite of its flaws – the relationship between Howard and Simmons is never very convincing and the ending somewhat abrupt – it is a great movie to discover by accident on a Wednesday afternoon. Ralph Thomas shows that, like that other British war-horse J Lee Thompson, he was at times capable of making some perfectly decent entertainment.