Hitchcock, Finding His Voice in Silents (NY Times)

LINK – Dave Kehr

Alfred Hitchcock (in foreground, pointing) directing “The Mountain Eagle” (1926), a silent feature presumed lost.

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.

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