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A Waltz toward ominous themes

Alfred Hitchcock.

On Aug. 18, the Harvard Film Archive, as part of a complete retrospective of the films of Alfred Hitchcock, will screen the master of suspense’s only musical: “Waltzes From Vienna” (1934), a fanciful version of the life of Johann Strauss Jr., navigating the young composer through a disapproving father, a flirtatious countess, a jealous girlfriend, and a near-capitulation to a career as a baker, to the successful premiere of “The Blue Danube.”

On the surface, “Waltzes From Vienna” is a featherlight entry in the operetta-film genre that had a British vogue in the 1930s. But lurking is Hitchcock’s penchant for experimentation and his fascination with the effects of cinematic sound. In particular, the movie is marked by a playful ambiguity between diegetic and non-diegetic sound, that is, sounds taking place within the world of the movie and sounds added from without. The two strains come together in an offhandedly virtuosic sequence as Strauss, having resigned himself to the baking life, is suddenly inspired by the rhythm of the bakers’ work, which are visually and aurally melded with the nascent strains of “The Blue Danube” on the soundtrack.

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In later years, Hitchcock would regard “Waltzes From Vienna” as a career nadir, and, even as he was making it, bemoaned his unsuitability for the material (“I hate this sort of thing,” he was heard to complain). Nevertheless, Hitchcock gleaned something from the experience; his next movie, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” would feature the most famous musical scene of his career, a concert hall assassination attempt set during, and to, the “Storm Clouds Cantata” by British composer Arthur Benjamin. One can almost imagine Hitchcock, dutifully filming bakers synchronizing their tasks to waltz-time, suddenly realizing that even that scene could have its diabolical counterpart.

MATTHEW GUERRIERI

“Waltzes From Vienna” screens Aug. 18, part of a double feature with “The Lady

Vanishes,” 7 p.m. 617-495-4700, hcl.harvard.edu/hfa

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