HITCHCOCK, FINDING HIS VOICE IN SILENTS

Dave Kehr 06/25/2013

Alfred Hitchcock may be the most famous film director who ever lived — a favorite of both the pleasure-loving public and theory-addled academics; the subject at once of bizarre biographical fantasies (now available in both book and movie form) as well as of some of the most significant critical thinking of the last 50 or 60 years.
Most of his films remain easily accessible through home video, whereas the work of many of his contemporaries has been allowed to sink into commercial obscurity. Thirty-three years after his death, his image is as instantly recognizable as that of Chaplin or Einstein. Like them, he has lent his posthumous prestige to an Apple computer campaign.

And yet there’s a significant portion of Hitchcock’s work that has been neglected: his earliest features, made from 1925, when the 26-year-old Hitch made his debut as a director with the melodrama “The Pleasure Garden,” to 1929, when he partly reshot the silent thriller “Blackmail” to add dialogue and sound effects, making it the first British talkie.

But now, Hitchcock’s silent films are back as “The Hitchcock 9,” a traveling program organized by the British Film Institute that will arrive in New York on Saturday on the newly installed Steinberg Screen of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater.

Though the nine surviving Hitchcock silent films have long been accessible in variously compromised forms (a 10th silent feature, “The Mountain Eagle” from 1926, is missing and presumed lost), they are being shown here in versions as definitive as modern technology and curatorial know-how can make them. Two seem completely reborn: Thanks to 20 minutes of restored footage and a vastly improved visual quality, “The Pleasure Garden” now feels like a fully realized film rather than a promising sketch; and “The Lodger,” Hitchcock’s third film (1927) and his first to join the subject of crime to the mechanisms of suspense, has been filled out with missing shots and returned to a reasonable approximation of the form in which it was first seen, complete with the atmospheric color tinting of the period.

But every film here has benefited to some degree, including the 1929 “Manxman” (the only one of the nine to exist as a complete camera negative, ready for printing) and the 1927 “Easy Virtue” (the only one for which no 35-millimeter material exists at all — only soft, narrow-gauge prints made for home screenings). Innumerable instances of dirt and scratches have been removed, intertitles have been reconstructed and jittering images have been stabilized.

This ambitious, roughly $3 million program originated in the cultural celebrations organized around the 2012 London Olympics, and was financed through a combination of private funds (including support from the Film Foundation, in the United States) and public donations solicited through an aggressive “Rescue the Hitchcock 9!” campaign.

If this unusually public initiative had a secret agenda, it was perhaps to reclaim one of England’s most famous expatriates for the old country — to re-establish the essential Britishness of a filmmaker who made his last British feature in 1939 and became a United States citizen in 1955. And it is true that, if Hitchcock made his masterpieces in America, the essentials of his themes and style were established long before he left for Hollywood.

The opening scene of “The Pleasure Garden” seems almost like a clip reel of Hitchcock motifs to come. In the opening shot, chorus girls are seen descending a spiral staircase (both staircases and spirals will become recurring images, as, for example, in “Vertigo”); a middle-aged man uses a pair of opera glasses to get a better look at a blond dancer in the line (immediately summoning James Stewart in “Rear Window,” using a Telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors); the blond dancer (Virginia Valli, the film’s imported American star) turns out to be not a remote, inaccessible erotic object but, beneath her blond wig, an approachable, down-to-earth woman with dark hair (establishing a dichotomy that goes right down to Barbara Harris and Karen Black in Hitchcock’s final film, the 1976 “Family Plot”).

But in other, no less interesting ways, these films represent the road not taken. At this early point in his career, Hitchcock was still experimenting with different genres and different styles, varying his approach film by film as he discovered what he had to say and refined how he wanted to say it.

Only two films of the “Hitchcock 9” are thrillers in the manner that would come to be associated with him: “The Lodger,” his first resounding critical success, and “Blackmail” (1929), his last silent film and his first to master the delicate dance of shifting subjectivities and transferred audience identification that would give his greatest work its moral and emotional force.

In between, we find a boxing picture (“The Ring”), a public school story (“Downhill”), a rural comedy (“The Farmer’s Wife”), an adaptation of a Noël Coward society drama (“Easy Virtue”), a proto-screwball comedy centered on a ditsy heiress (“Champagne”) and a stark, almost neorealist treatment of adultery in an isolated fishing village (“The Manxman”).

The young Hitchcock, as he would be throughout his life, was a passionate filmgoer and a judicious magpie, who filed away images and ideas for later development. When the seminal London Film Society was formed in 1925, Hitchcock became one of its earliest and most assiduous members, absorbing the latest work from France, Germany and the Soviet Union.

While the influence of the German films of the Weimar period is immediately obvious in the dark, shadowy imagery of “The Lodger” (subtitled “A Tale of the London Fog,” it’s the story of a working-class family that comes to believe their new roomer is a serial killer), the film’s rhythmic editing patterns belong to the Russian school of montage, as exemplified by that Film Society favorite, Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin.”

While “The Lodger,” “Downhill” and “Blackmail” are all highly formalist films, Hitchcock also explored the more naturalistic, actor-centered style favored by the American studios.

“The Farmer’s Wife” is a somewhat protracted comedy of contrasting provincial types (a widowed farmer pursues a series of variously unsuitable potential mates, unaware that his loyal housekeeper is in love with him) that could have been made by Henry King in Hollywood; “Champagne” is a star vehicle for Betty Balfour, at the time Britain’s most popular comedian, that plays to her bubbly image while placing it in a more sinister context (cut off by her millionaire father, she becomes a flower girl in a louche Parisian nightclub).

The single most consistent — and striking — stylistic element in these films is Hitchcock’s vigorous use of what might be called the confrontational close-up, in which an actor looks directly into the camera’s lens and addresses the audience as if it were another performer in the scene. These moments of forced subjectivity — we are, almost literally, put in the place of a character in the film — occur in contexts as benign as a simple conversation and as menacing as an attempted rape.

Beyond their immediate dramatic purpose, what you feel in these shots is Hitchcock’s eagerness to implicate the viewer in the action, to shake us out of the comfortable position of the detached voyeur and plunge us into the exigencies of the moment. It is here that Hitchcock, so often mischaracterized as a sadistic manipulator, reveals his deep humanism. He insists that we feel the compulsion of the killer, the passion of the adulterer, the irrational shame of the unfairly accused, before we make an easy moral judgment and push them away.

Hitchcock’s use of the confrontational close-up diminished with the coming of sound; perhaps he felt that, with the added element of spoken dialogue, the technique became too obvious. He would find other, more subtle and more psychological, ways of achieving the same effect. But the device remained in his arsenal: When Mrs. Bates looks up and out at us at the end of “Psycho,” she does so with the same, sudden, discomfiting intimacy with which the Lodger regarded the camera in 1927. And neither one of them would hurt a fly. (For a complete series schedule: bam.org/film.)

The New York Times

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