Today, when we think of Alfred Hitchcock, the films that come to mind are his taut thrillers and stories of suspense from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. There is Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960), among others.
In a career spanning more than half a century, Hitchcock fashioned a distinct directorial style which helped redefine the movies. Above all, Hitchcock told stories visually. He employed innovative camera angles and editing techniques, and reveled in shots framed to heighten a scene's sense of trepidation. At times, his use of the camera could border on voyeurism.
Recognized as a master of suspense, many of Hitchcock's films have twist endings, and employ decoys or "MacGuffins" that serve the film's themes and allow for their examination of character psychology. Frustration, criminal behavior, muted violence, and murder run throughout, as do individuals on the run from the law alongside alluring, icy blonde women -- the latter being a Hitchcock obsession. And then there are the director's famous cameos in nearly each of his films. They serve as Hitchcock's signature.
A somewhat quiet Catholic boy from London's East End, Hitchcock (1899 - 1980) began as a production designer during the silent era. He moved up the ranks, and eventually became Britain's leading director before heading to Hollywood in 1939. Hitchcock completed ten films in England before the talkies took over. Nine of those silent films still exist.
Recently, the British Film Institute set about restoring Hitchcock's surviving silents. Missing footage was restored, and decades of damage and dirt removed in what is being described as the largest restoration project ever undertaken by the BFI, which holds some of the earliest surviving copies of the director's silent work.
These little-seen films, which have come to be known as the "Hitchcock 9," reveal the seeds of genius. They show an artist starting to work with the themes, motifs and obsessions which were the hallmark of his best movies. The "Hitchcock 9" includes the director's first completed film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), about chorus girls in London, as well as such rarities as Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), Champagne (1928), and The Farmer's Wife (1928).
The now familiar Hitchcock style is already evident in four of the films, Blackmail (1929), The Ring (1927), The Manxman (1929), and The Lodger (1927). The director himself dubbed the latter film "the first true Hitchcock picture." It also features his first cameo appearance.
Hitchcock once said, "The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema." These early works, starring the likes of handsome Ivor Novello and gorgeous Anny Ondra, shouldn't be missed.
A national tour for the "Hitchcock 9" begins at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco (June 14-16) in an event sponsored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Hats off to them for debuting these historic works. The films then make their way to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (June 18, featuring only the silent and sound versions of Blackmail), and BAMcinématek in Brooklyn (June 29- July 5).
Additional screenings are also in the works for Washington D.C., Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Boston, and other American cities. Both the San Francisco and Brooklyn events will feature live music performed by the renown Colorado-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, acclaimed British composer-pianist Stephen Horne, and other musical accompanists.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts and entertainment writer and early film buff, as well as the director of the Louise Brooks Society, an Internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books, organized exhibits, and introduced Brooks' films around the world.
Blackmail (1929) Cast: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Ritchard, Hannah Jones "Hitchcock’s silent Blackmail is one of the best British films, if not the best, of the late 1920s. Made in 1929, during the transition to the sound era, it was commissioned as both a silent and as a part-talkie with music and some dialogue scenes. Blackmail displays many of the stylistic elements and themes with which Hitchcock would come to be associated: particularly a fascination with male sexual aggression and female vulnerability. It is also one of a number of Hitchcock’s films to feature a heroine who enters a daze or “fugue” state in which she acts mechanically and apparently without control of her actions. With remarkable skill (and an eye to building a solid career in the new medium), Hitchcock managed to produce both a beautifully crafted silent and a groundbreaking sound version. Indeed, he tackled the considerable technical obstacles with such imagination that the latter has tended to obscure the reputation of the silent version, which is in fact superior in a number of ways. As Hitchcock himself said, “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema”. (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
Champagne (1928) Cast: Betty Balfour, Jean Bardin, Ferdinand von Alten, Gordon Harker "Champagne is a romantic comedy about a millionaire’s decision to teach his frivolous “flapper” daughter (played by the effervescent comedy actress Betty Balfour) a lesson by feigning bankruptcy. Hitchcock shares the writing credit on this film, though in the end it was Walter Mycroft who rewrote the script, reversing what was originally intended to be a rags-to-riches tale. Whatever Hitchcock thought about the story, he did introduce some extraordinary experimental touches, including a glorious opening shot filmed through a raised champagne glass, and some entertaining effects to convey sea sickness on the part of the girl’s fiancé (played by French matinée idol Jean Bradin). Most recognizably Hitchcockian are the scenes between Betty and “the man”, a sinister ‘cosmopolitan’ man of the world, featuring daring point-of-view and subjective fantasy." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
Downhill (1927) Cast: Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, Ian Hunter, Annette Benson, Robert Irvine, Norman McKinnell, Violet Farebrother, Barbara Gott "Downhill is one of the darkest of Hitchcock’s early films, following the fall from grace of promising public school head boy Roddy Berwick. It features a succession of predatory and manipulative female characters who torment Novello’s hapless young hero: the shop girl who falsely accuses Roddy of fathering her child; the selfish and mercenary actress who marries him for his inheritance; the venal nightclub madame who exploits his penury. Based on the stage play Down Hill, written by Novello with Constance Collier, under the combined alias David L’Estrange, it’s not hard to imagine that the story reflects the experiences of Novello himself, a gay matinee idol oppressed by unwanted female attention. A rich and often elegant work, Downhill features revelatory camera tracking, artful lighting, sickly green tinting to express a character’s nausea and mental turmoil — Hitchcockian flourishes that play on layers of perception." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
The Ring (1927) Cast: Carl Brisson, Lilian Hall Davis, Ian Hunter, Forrester Harvey, Harry Terry, Gordon Harker "The Ring was Hitchcock’s sixth film as director and his first at British International Pictures. In 1927, after directing Downhill and Easy Virtue, two stage adaptations, Hitchcock jumped at the chance to develop an idea of his own. Surprisingly, The Ring is Hitchcock’s one and only original screenplay, although he worked extensively alongside other writers throughout his career. Set in the world of boxing, The Ring is a love triangle melodrama: the title refers not just to the boxing ring, but to the wedding ring which unites up-and-coming contender Jack ‘One Round’ Sander (Carl Brisson) and his girlfriend Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis), and to the threat to their relationship symbolized by an arm bracelet given to Mabel by Jack’s rival Bob (Ian Hunter). Hitchcock was fascinated by the details of boxing, and had attended championship bouts at the Albert Hall, one of which appears in the film, constructed through a visual sleight of hand. A full-scale fairground was built on the studio lot, with hundreds of extras, giving Hitchcock ample scope to indulge his taste for visual tricks and distortions, as he does too in the party scenes. Critically adored, The Ring was hailed as a “masterpiece” and proclaimed “the greatest production ever made” in England." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
The Manxman (1929) Cast: Anny Ondra, Carl Brisson, Malcolm Keen, Randle Ayrton "Set in a remote Isle of Man fishing community, The Manxman is Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate silent film and one of the best and most mature works of his early career. The story, adapted from the bestselling 1894 novel by Sir Hall Caine, follows two boyhood friends who take markedly different paths in adulthood: Pete becomes a fisherman, Philip a lawyer. Both fall in love with the same woman, the daughter of a puritanical Methodist, bringing them into conflict not only with their own moral code but also that of the strict Manx society. The Manxman is bursting with bold, Hitchcockian bravado. The portrayal of the wild ‘Manx’ coastline is among the most evocative in any of his work and trapped within it is the wonderful Anny Ondra. It’s a complex, sensual performance—part vulnerable waif, part flirtatious femme fatale—and clearly the reason why Hitch cast her in his suspense masterpiece, Blackmail, later that year. The film is suffused with symbolism: the three cartwheeling legs of the ‘triskele,’ the emblem of the Isle of Man; and turning millstones - ‘the mills of god’ - whose unstoppable, slowly grinding momentum is a powerful metaphor for the unforgiving puritanical society confronted by the characters." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
The Farmer's Wife (1928) Cast: Jameson Thomas, Lilian Hall-Davis, Gordon Harker, Antonia Brough, Maud Gill "A widowed landowner decides to marry again. With the aid of his faithful housekeeper he draws up a list of all the eligible women in the neighborhood, and goes wooing each in turn, with disastrous results. A romantic comedy in a rural setting is about as far as you can get from a typical Hitchcock film, although he did make a couple of other forays into the romantic comedy genre over the course of his career, with Champagne later in the same year, a gentle screwball Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) and The Trouble with Harry (1955). Hitchcock had got into the habit of dismissing his early works, particularly the adaptations, by the time of the famous, much-quoted interviews with Truffaut and Bogdanovich, which helps to explain why it isn’t well known, but The Farmer’s Wife is a deceptively subtle film and one of Hitchcock’s most enjoyable early works, with good performances, superior settings, lovely locations and the kind of gentle comedy, coupled with farce, beloved of British audiences." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
Easy Virtue (1928) Cast: Isabel Jeans, Robin Irvine, Franklin Dyall, Ian Hunter, Violet Farebrother, Frank Elliott, Dorothy Boyd, Benita Hume "In Picturegoer of July 1927 a photomontage advertises the coming attraction of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of the stage play Easy Virtue with the caption; “Screening a Noel Coward play sounds rather difficult – Mr. Hitchcock has just done it!” It was a challenge. In Coward’s play the blackening of the heroine’s name has already happened before the action starts, with the explanation of how and why coming later. This dialogue-driven structure was cumbersome in silent cinema, so Eliot Stannard came up with a daring solution: he rearranged the chronology of the story, beginning with the dramatic court case and surprise ending of the play. Hitchcock’s own contribution didn’t go unnoticed—he excels in Easy Virtue. As in The Pleasure Garden and Champagne, he opens the film with a cinematic bang, opening with an innovative trick shot created using mirrors and a monocle. Impressive too is the use of another favorite Hitchcock device: the crucial action of a scene is shown only in the facial expressions of the telephone operator as she listens in to their conversation." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
The Pleasure Garden (1925) Cast: Virginia Valli, Carmelita Geraghty, Miles Mander, John Stuart, George Snell "The 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock had done nearly every job on the studio floor—designing titles, writing scripts, art directing and assistant directing— by the time he was given his first directing job at Gainsborough Studios. His first assignment was an adaptation of the bestselling 1923 novel by Oliver Sandys, the pseudonym of Marguerite Florence Barclay. In The Pleasure Garden, the fates of two chorus girls fall into sharp relief—Jill, the schemer, finds success, and Patsy, the good-hearted girl, is betrayed by her unscrupulous husband. Hitchcock’s confident filmmaking style is evident from the first frame, with a cascade of chorus girls’ legs tripping down a spiral staircase, but it is his ability to condense the story and then to weave in extra layers of meaning that is truly impressive. Though he dismissed the subject matter as “melodramatic,” Hitchcock certainly gave it an extra dimension—The Pleasure Garden is a treatise on voyeurism, sexual politics and the gap between romantic dreams and reality. Hitchcock uses the minor characters to comment on the principals, to contrast the behavior of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters through the use of parallel action. A casually discarded apple, one bite taken from it, effectively symbolizes a husband’s disregard for his wife on their wedding night, and hints at his future conduct. The BFI’s restoration reintroduces many of these little flourishes and Hitchcock ‘touches’, revealing how much of his talent was present in his very first film as director." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
The Lodger (1927) Cast: Ivor Novello, Malcolm Keen, Miss June, Arthur Chesney, Marie Ault "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was Hitchcock’s first thriller, and his first critical and commercial success. Made shortly after Hitchcock’s return from Germany, the film betrays the influence of the German expressionist tradition. Based on the best-selling crime novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger gave him the opportunity to feature what was to become a favorite theme—the hunted man. The casting of the matinee idol Ivor Novello as the mysterious lodger who falls under suspicion also heralded another favorite device: casting against type to play off audience expectations. June Tripp, the young actress who starred as the landlady’s daughter, Daisy, was the second of a long series of actresses who were either blonde or became blonde for Hitchcock. Joe, Daisy’s policeman fiancé, jokes, “I’m keen on golden hair myself, same as the Avenger is.” It soon became clear that Hitchcock had similar tastes. The Lodger is also distinctive for its bold use of visual devices and beautifully evocative intertitles. Hitchcock can be glimpsed both in the newsroom and as a bystander in a crowd scene; allegedly the result of a shortage of extras, it's the first of his many signature cameo appearances." (photo/description courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival)
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