by Ian Haydn Smith
Thanks to the British Film Institute’s remarkable restoration work, audiences around the world have the chance to watch the early work of Britain’s greatest filmmaker. Here are 9 reasons why you should see the Hitchcock 9:
A Glittering Debut
For decades, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 directorial debut The Pleasure Garden could only be seen in an incomplete version, with a significant part of the original print missing. In arguably the restoration project’s most ambitious undertaking, which involved research in archives around the world, the missing 20 minutes has now been restored and audiences are at last able to witness the genesis of Hitchcock’s genius.
A Flawless Storyteller
Hitchcock was a supreme storyteller. With the screening of The Manxman (1929), the last films in the series, you can witness a director who understood film could convey so much of the story visually. To Hitchcock dialogue – or text cards in the case of these films – was often superfluous. It supports the maxim he would champion throughout his career: show, don’t tell. The early films also offer us numerous examples of a narrative that would continue to fascinate Hitchcock: the wrong man (or woman, in the case of his 1927 Noël Coward adaptation, Easy Virtue).
The Art of Suspense
Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. Suspense – the art of leading us to a precipice and dangling us over an abyss in a state of excitement and fear – has been a staple of the director’s work, from his early silent films through to such late masterpieces as Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). What may be surprising to those unaccustomed to silent cinema is just how much tension the young Hitchcock was able to create.
A Developing Style
Those questioning Hitchcock’s status as an auteur often refer to the director’s 1941 screwball comedy misfire Mr. & Mrs. Smith that is markedly different to the thrillers that bookend the film and for which Hitchcock is best known. The early films, however, feature a fascinating array of genres. Rather than attempt to shoehorn each into the category by which Hitchcock would make his name, it is better to see them as a young artist cutting his teeth on all manner of genres before settling on the one that best suited him. The films range from the frivolous comedy of Champagne (1928) to the charged emotions of The Manxman.
The Set Piece
Today, Steven Spielberg is the director most closely associated with the action set piece. For 50 years Hitchcock was the master of the intricately staged – and shot – action sequence. Witness the crop duster scene in North by Northwest, the opening chase in Vertigo or the climax atop the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942). Such sequences appear throughout his early films, such as the chase scenes that make up the climax of The Lodger (1926) and Blackmail (1929). And let’s not forget the brilliantly staged fight scenes in The Ring (1927).
Hitchcock’s Visual Style
Through Hitchcock’s eyes we witness the world in a singular way. A dancer desired by a man is first seen magnified through a glass in the opening moments of Champagne; a man and woman ascending a staircase in Blackmail are followed by a camera that moves, in a single take, up through a specially constructed atrium; and in one of his most celebrated shots, from his 1926 masterpiece, Hitchcock allows us to see the eponymous Lodger pacing nervously on the floor above his landlady and her family thanks to the installation of a glass ceiling.
The History of Cinema
From German Expressionism and Soviet Montage to the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, Hitchcock assimilated every movement that had so far emerged in world cinema, employing it to brilliant effect in his films. His work throughout the silent period, bringing together his unique visual style, mastery over pace as witnessed in his chase sequences and the influence of different cinematic languages, would culminate in one of the most brilliant ‘silent’ sequences in one of his early sound films, the breathtaking assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall concert in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Watching these early films allows us to understand how Hitchcock employed these influences to such sophisticated effect.
A Thrilling Accompaniment
A number of new scores have been commissioned to accompany the restorations. Amongst these is Soweto Kinch’s jazzy score for The Ring. With its echoes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, Kinch draws out the playfulness of Hitchcock’s boxing drama, as well as heightening the more suspenseful moments. Nitin Sawhhey reflects on Hitchcock’s successful relationship with composer Bernard Hermann with his score for The Lodger. Throughout there are references to Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho (1960), as well as Sawhney’s own cultural heritage. The result is one of the most eclectic and exciting scores. And John Sweeney, the celebrated accompanist, who has travelled the world with these restored films, offers a jaunty score to Downhill (1927). In addition to these scores, the British Council is working with musicians in each country that the films are playing, allowing audiences to witness through the collaboration with local composers and groups just how universal the themes of Hitchcock’s films are.
The Art of Entertainment
Hitchcock is one of the great artists of the 20th century. His work is as important as that of Picasso or Proust. However, to only champion his artistic virtues is to negate the other important aspect of his life’s work: Hitchcock was a born entertainer. From his cameo appearances in 39 of his films (witnessed amongst this collection in The Lodger and Blackmail) to his love of thrilling us, Hitchcock as was successful at navigating his way through the darkest emotions of the human heart as he was at keeping us enthralled.