Despite his renown, Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest work is known to very few. Aficionados are aware of his films from the early 1930s, which he directed in his native England. And nearly everyone knows at least some of the films he made in the United States starting in the 1940s, many of which are now counted among the classics. But as early as the 1920, Hitcock was directing silent films — only nine of which have survived. Most of the copies we have are defective, in some cases, with entire scenes missing.
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Enter the British Film Institute.
In a difficult and ambitious project, the institute, aided by film archives from around the world, restored the surviving films on 35 mm film in their entirety. The silent films are now touring the world; and starting Friday, thanks to the British Institute in Israel, they will be screened in the Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem Cinematheques. All the screenings will be accompanied by music, in some cases recorded and in others played live by talented local musicians, including Daniel Salomon, Eran Tzur, Karni Postel and others.
The Tel Aviv Cinemateque will kick things off this evening with a screening of “The Pleasure Garden,” Hitchcock’s first full-length feature film, from 1925. The film is a melodrama, which like “Champagne” from 1928, takes place among the flappers of Roaring Twenties London. But Hitchcock adds an exotic dimension to the plot, with the second part taking place in the Far East.
Although “The Pleasure Garden” includes a murder and another violent death, only two of the silent films really hint at the thrilling, macabre style that would come to characterize Hitchcock’s oeuvre — “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” 1927, and “Blackmail,” 1929 (which was Hitchcock’s last silent film, and due to the transition to sound was filmed in another version that included talking scenes.)
The films include comedies (“Champagne” and “The Farmer’s Wife,” also from 1928), and melodramas (“The Manxman,” 1927, “Easy Virtue,” 1928, “Downhill” and “The Ring,” 1929), many of which resemble Victorian morality plays. But it would be a mistake to see these films as exceptional. If we study Hitchcock’s work in depth — and ignore those rare, late instances in which violent death is not present (for example, the 1941 romantic comedy “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) — we discover that Hitchcock experimented with a different genre in every film and that both melodrama and comedy were always part of his work, often both in the same movie.
In the heart of the cinematic mainstream, there was no other director as experimental as Alfred Hitchcock. If in his early silent films it looks as though the experimentation was influenced by contemporary German, French and Soviet cinema, later on it seems as though Hitchcock is conjuring his films from nothing but his own imagination. With the exception of “The Lodger,” the story of a mysterious man who is suspected of being a serial killer of blondes, and “Blackmail,” about a woman who murders the man who tried to rape her and whose boyfriend is in charge of investigating the murder, none of the films could be described as a central to Hitchcock’s filmography.
But all the films include surprises in plot and style, and the best part of watching them is trying to locate Hitchcock’s fingerprints, in terms both of theme and form. As in most of his later films, here we can already see Hitchcock’s desire to tell a story using visual means, some of which rely more on the spectators’ imagination than on what is shown to them directly. The films are full of great visual ideas that sometimes deviate from their realistic foundations. In the most famous of them, “The Lodger,” the hero of the film walks back and forth in his room, and his steps are reflected in the room below as though the ceiling were transparent.
Already in these films, we can appreciate Hitchcock’s control of cinematic perspective, both of the characters, who occasionally even look straight into the camera, and of those watching them. This control determines the developing relationship between the audience and the characters and frequently puts it to an ideological and emotional test. The films are full of double identities who reflect and confront one another, as would be the case in some of his most famous later films, such as “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Strangers on a Train” and “Frenzy.” In several of the best silent films, this duality serves the main issues that would preoccupy Hitchcock later, first and foremost the fluidity of innocence and guilt.
Several of the films are already driven by the ambivalent morality of Hitchcock’s world view, sometimes suffused with irony, and like many of Hitchcock’s later films, they question the idea of the happy ending to which the plot is presumably leading. In some of the films, there is also social criticism directed at the leisure culture, characterized by greed, that typified the 1920s. On the other hand, the films can have a British puritanical character, which clashes with the more daring aspects of the films and even contributes to the sense of ambivalence in some of them.
There are many blonde women in these films, and we are of course aware of Hitchcock’s attraction to blondes. The fetishization of women, and particularly of their hair, is evident in the several films that create a narrative and visual conflict between blonde and dark-haired women. In “Champagne,” for example, the dark-haired women who appear in the nightclub wear blonde wigs; and in “The Lodger,” because the serial killer chooses only blondes as his victims (and it’s impossible not to recall while watching the film all the stories about Hitchcock’s own abuse of some of his blonde actresses), the blondes in the film try to conceal their hair color.
We should not forget that these are films that were produced almost 90 years ago, and their style is that of silent film. The gestures are sometimes extravagant and the acting is sometimes exaggerated. But there joy in observing a world that has long since disappeared, and only the art of cinema is capable of preserving it with such vitality. It’s a pleasure to observe the behavior of the men and women in this world, and those who are interested in women or men’s fashion, or in interior design, will find plenty to admire.
This is also an opportunity for those interested in the history of the movie star to get to know some of the greatest British female stars during the period when these films were made, including Isabel Jeans, Betty Balfour and Czech actress Anny Ondra. (When dialogue was added to Ondra’s film “Blackmail,” they had to use the voice of a British actress, because of Ondra’s heavy Czech accent.)
The most interesting encounter is with actor and composer Ivor Novello, who stars in two of the films, “Downfall” and “The Lodger,” and who in his day was one of England’s biggest stars. With his dashing good looks, Novello is sometimes described as having introduced into popular culture, the concept of the “matinee idol.” Among the nine films there are two for which additional versions were produced (but not by Hitchcock).
In 2008, Australian director Stephan Elliott directed a new version of “Easy Virtue,” based on the play by Noel Coward. Elliot’s film is very different from Hitchcock’s and emphasizes mainly the ugly divorce trial in which the heroine of the film is involved. “The Lodger,” which is based on a popular book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, gave rise to several film and television versions. The films, one directed in 1944 by John Brahm and the other in 1953 by Hugo Fregonese (and called “Man in the Attic”) were also good, even if they lacked a sense of the artist who discovers himself, which characterizes Hitchcock’s version. In 2008, a third version of the story was produced by Canadian director David Ondaatje, which I didn’t see, or if I did, I’ve forgotten.