The British Film Institute’s major restorations of Alfred Hitchcock’s existing nine extant silent films made 1925-1929 before he switched to sound is touring the US with musical accompaniments. I watched the series courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The next venue was in LA, and now they’re showing at the BAM-Cinemtek in New York. Here’s a rundown on the series. Click on the titles for my full reviews.
The Pleasure Garden, first remaining Hitchcock silent film, is a conventional love melodrama of the period that focuses on two chorus girls, one frivolous and one serious. As has been pointed out Hitchcock shows visual flair from the start in the way he uses closeups of the chorus girls’ legs, and a striking image of a thin stairway. However, the unrolling of the story is often obvious, starting with the combination of a show business beginning and an exotic end.
Lots of exciting street crowd scenes begin this thriller, which as is always pointed out, not only takes up for the first time Hitchcock’s favourite subject of murder, but also includes the other favourite theme of a wronged innocent man, the lodger of the title, who is false accused of being the serial killer, The Avenger, an assassin, never seen, who repeatedly murders pretty blonde young women (another favourite theme) and leaves a note with this moniker with a triangle or delta sign. Unlike future Hitchcock thrillers, however, this film quickly stops focusing on the murders and zeros in on a handsome, apparently well-off young man who mysteriously comes to rent a room where most of the action takes place.
The Gainsborough production company wanted Ivor Novello back with Hitchcock after the success of The Lodger, so Hitchcock adapted Novello’s stage play, which he’d written with Constance Collier under the joint nom de plume of David L’Estrange. Though 34, Novello plays the lead role of Roddy Berwick, an outstanding public schoolboy who takes the rap when a pal is accused by a local tuck shop girl of making her pregnant. He’s expelled, and when called a liar at home by his wealthy father for denying guilt, leaves home. A downward path follows, symbolised by a shot Hitchcock later thought too obvious of Roddy descending on a long escalator into the depths of the London Underground. Each time he seems abused by a woman, first the accusing tuck shop girl, then a greedy actress he falls for who uses up his inheritance from his godmother and tosses him out, then a nightclub Madam who makes him dance with lonely old women for pennies. A BFI note suggests this may reflect “the experience of Novello himself, a gay matinee idol oppressed by unwanted female attention.” It also suggests Roddy is one of Hitch’s “vulnerable blond” protagonists subject to his “fetishistic gaze.” At least he qualifies as a wronged man, and Novello is an engaging actor to watch.
In Easy Virtue Hitchcock undertakes the tricky task of making a silent film out of a talky play by Noel Coward. But as the BFI blurb proclaims, “The camera’s gaze gave the story a dimension unattainable on stage.” Of course different angles — and location shoots — are possible to enhance the tale of a woman who, somewhat like Roddy in Hitchcock’s previous film Downfall, is an innocent who runs into one trouble after another. But as a matter of fact the images of the film aren’t as good as the others, because nothing but scratched prints could be found for the restoration. But that’s not all bad, because the early sequences (after the opening courtroom scene) are of a woman getting her portrait painted, and the images of that are so blurry they look like paintings — not an altogether bad effect. This becomes the story of an innocent’s “downfall,” much like Hitchcock’s previous film, but with settings in a courtroom, in he South of France, and at a posh English country house very far from the humble London surroundings of the greengrocer’s son, and deftly handled nonetheless.
The Ring features the only Hitchcock screenplay he fully originated. It’s a down-and-dirty carnival boxer’s tale that’s one of his most cinematic and visually rich silents, full of intense chiaroscuro and atmospheric, teeming crowd scenes with dramatic highlighted figures and faces further heightened by being ringed by darkness. (The BFI restoration DVD also has an unusually vivid sound accompaniment, a small jazz group score that fits the whole mood and enhances the scenes.) He may have been more at home here than with the la-de-dah world of the French Riviera and posh English country home life of Noel Coward’s play he’d just dealt with in Easy Virtue. But the point is the way he demonstrates his quick adeptness at switching to another genre and milieu for each new film. The Ring is various and satisfying visually, and in contrast simple almost to the point of monotony in its theme. The better to be wordlessly cinematic, communicating with closeups and crosscutting so it often needs no dialogue boxes (which have been simplified, too, divested of their old fashioned frames).
“He’ll be the next to wed now his daughter’s marryin’, says the handyman (Gordon Harker) after Farmer Sweetland’s wife dies. “Why not? There’s something magical in the married state. . . it have a beautiful side, Churdles Ash,” answers Minta, the housekeeper (Lillian Hall-Davis). From a popular play, by Eden Phillpotts, Hitchcock’s The Farmer’s Wife is a broad comedy, with elements of the grotesque, about just this: a middle aged English country farmer whose wife has recently died decides upon the marriage of his daughter to seek another wife for himself. This may not seem at all a Hitchcockian theme, and the new direction may owe something to the director’s having recently (with The Ring) joined the new production studio British International Pictures, moving from Gainsborough. But if we look at “Hitchcock’s basic plot formations” as listed by Robin Wood, 1. the falsely accused man, 2. the guilty woman, 3. the psychopath, 4. espionage & political intrigue, 5. marriage, there marriage is, number five.
Champagne is a film slim in emotional content but vibrant with the frivolity of the Jazz Age and tinged with a hint of the coming Great Depression. It’s about a rich playgirl whose father decides to teach her a lesson while she’s playing around abroad by pretending to have gone bankrupt. The story line is slight, but provides much opportunity for scenes of partying, dancing, drinking; of the interiors of a luxury liner and a big night club packed with people dancing; of a lively girl posing in a succession of gay frocks; and of dashing men in evening clothes. Gordon Harker, who played the glum-faced trainer in The Ring and the eccentric, slapstick handyman in The Farmer’s Wife, shows his versatility by playing the millionaire father in Champagne, where he looks somewhat like the car magnate, Henry Ford. The frizzy-haired Betty Balfour plays the spoiled heiress, and there are two other principals, the French actor Jean Bradin as “The Boy,” her tall, impeccable boyfriend, and Ferdinand von Alten as “The Man,” a mysterious moustachioed Hercule Poirot type who seems to haunt the girl wherever she goes.
“Adapted from the famous story by Sir Hall Caine,” the opening title proclaims. Another topic designed to be easily grasped by the popular audience that devoured several new movies every week, The Manxman is about a fisherman and a rising young lawyer, who grew up “as brothers,” and as adults, as the story begins, fall in love with the same girl, which leads to tragedy. The origins of their friendship are never explained as they are in the book, and the credibility of their remaining friends while being so different as adults is only somewhat artificially established by having them cooperate in the opening minutes in a legal campaign to maintain free trawling rights for the local herring fishermen. The theme seems heavily sentimental and manipulative, a doomed situation with much room for torment and confusion but no surprises, and few of the flourishes Hitchcock was capable of. Not surprisingly, he said he was not happy with this picture, though it was nonetheless a critical success, if undercut at the box office by the rapid rise of talkies
With Blackmail we have a full-fledged twisty Hitchcock crime thriller. He must have had fun with this one; no wonder he did both a silent and a sound version. There are many ingenious visual moments, including not just one but two cameos by Hitch himself. There’s a whole string of notable set pieces, including an opening “police procedural,” an entrapment-murder, and a grand scene of small figures chasing around on a dome over the city of London.
Blackmail was adapted from a play by Charles Bennett. And it provides good material.
The Hitchcock 9 restorations by the British Film Institute were scheduled partly to coincide with the London Olympics, and this film was shown al fresco outside the British Museum, especially appropriate since the movie’s climactic set piece takes place in the British Museum itself. This screening was accompanied by a new score by composer Neil Brand and performed by the Thames Sinfonia. (Unfortunately the BFI DVD for this one from the SF Silent Film Festival has no accompaniment.) Hitchcoock simultaneously made a silent and sound version of this film.