Thursday, May 17, 2012

Alfred's Centennial

My friend, Lokke Heiss is the programmer behind my local art house's classic film series (including the recently concluded Return to Forbidden Hollywood 3). After last night's final screening, I had the chance to discuss the Film Preservation Blogathon with him and he expressed an interest in participating. Unfortunately, Lokke doesn't have a blog, so I offered to host his thoughts on the Silent Hitchcock program he saw at the Pordone Silent Film Festival some years ago. So here's the first guest post in my blog's history:

In 1999, I had the opportunity while attending the Pordenone Silent Film Festival to see all of Hitchcock’s surviving films in chronological order. Here is my review of the films as I saw them—from his earliest silent to his transition to sound:

Alfred Hitchcock would have been 100 in 1999 and in celebration of his centennial the Pordenone Festival screened all his available silent films in the order they were filmed.

Hitchcock made important, albeit late, contributions to silent films before crossing into the talkies with Blackmail and in this very thorough review of ‘silent Hitchcock,’ the festival also screened films such as The Blackguard (1924, directed by Graham Cutts), where Alfred emerged as a talented assistant director. The Blackguard, partly shot in Berlin, gave Hitchcock a chance to soak up German cinema technique, including an invaluable opportunity to watch Murnau shoot Die Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh). When Hitchcock saw the finished film, he was impressed by both the moving camera and Murnau’s ability to tell the story with images rather than intertitles. Hitchcock quickly grasped the power of the moving image, and the manipulation of these graphic elements in the service of the story would soon become a trademark component in a Hitchcock film.

Alfred had his first chance to direct on a film called The Pleasure Garden. The movie starts as a routine story about a dance review girl who travels with her husband to the South Seas. The alcoholic husband links up with a local woman, who in a fit of jealous rage goes out to the ocean threatening to drown herself. When the man sees what she is doing he swims to her and for a moment she is elated, as it looks like he truly loves her. But when the he reaches the girl his attention is anything but philanthropic; he grabs her and holds her under water until she dies. With this shocking reversal of fortune, we start to see the themes and techniques that Hitchcock would essay for the next fifty years.

The Lodger, 1926, was Hitchcock’s breakthrough film. With The Lodger, Alfred established himself suddenly as one of the major players in British cinema. One of the secrets of Hitchcock was that he quickly grasped the importance of surrounding himself with talent, and for this production he worked with Alma Reville (soon to be his wife) as an assistant director. The Lodger is a Jack the Ripper story, with an unknown murderer strangling women in the night. While the owners of a boarding house fret about the identity of the assailant, an odd man comes to the door and asks for a room. All the evidence points to this man being the killer, but the daughter of the boarding house believes he is innocent and defends him from an angry mob.

The Lodger is justifiably famous, but I had trouble with the lead, Ivor Novello. Novello was a leading star of his day, and one of the keys to the story was the studio’s insistence that he turn out as the hero and not the murderer. But Novello plays so far over the top that it was hard for me to accept that the daughter would go for such a loony stranger. Obviously the audiences of the day who knew Novello as a major star had less trouble with this premise. Hitchcock was to visit this ground many years later in Suspicion (1941) with better leads but equal problems in the climax of the story.

Hitchcock’s next film was Downhill (1927). Downhill has been savaged by critics, but I think the film is excellent and is one of the ‘finds’ of the festival. In this film, Roddy Berwick (played by Ivor Novello) is ‘sent down’ because he is covering for a friend who has assaulted a woman. The film is an essay on false honor, as Berwick refuses to ‘rat’ on his roommate, and then leaves home after arguing with his father. Refusing to give in, Berwick, in a series of horrible decisions, slowly descends into the murky depths of society.

This film has an peculiar and unsettled quality in almost every aspect of its production, from its pervasive low-key lighting to its grim subject matter, and this oddness is heightened by the casting of Ivor Novello for the lead. Novello, showing every day of his 34 years of age when he played this role, looks like the oldest boy to ever try and matriculate from an English public school. Despite these qualities, at first glance, Downhill could be considered merely an odd recounting of brutal women doing horrible things to an innocent schoolboy. While Hitchcock is certainly open to the complaint of misogyny, a closer examination of Downhill reveals to me an opposite intent; the real ‘villain’ in this film is the arrogance (disguised as honor) in the lead character of Berwick. The film is really a critique of the patriarchal ‘school boy’ honor system that exists even today. Hitchcock makes clear that even though Novello’s character thinks he is being noble, this perceived honor is merely incredible pettiness. The end of the story has him back at school playing rugby with his chums—has he learned anything? We cannot tell, and Hitchcock leaves us with one of his most disturbing early films.

Easy Virtue (1927) was a film taken from a Noel Coward play. The story concerns the problems of a ‘woman with a past’ when she meets a handsome innocent young man. While feeling less ‘Hitchcockian’ than some other of these films, Easy Virtue has some very bright moments, such as when a telephone operator listens in the conversation between the lovers as the young man tries to persuade her to marry him. We do not hear the words of the couple, but watch the series of expressions of the operator as she listens. With this delightful scene, Hitchcock displays the unique pleasure and power of the image that silent film can convey to the audience.

The Ring (1927) is a romance triangle story in which a woman must choose between two boxers. Of particular interest is that the film was based on an original story by Hitchcock. While The Ring continues to show Alfred’s technical advances in lighting and camera-work, I found the story line the least satisfying of the series. And the pace is off, with scene after scene going on longer than needed. Clearly Hitchcock had trouble with the critical distance of filming his own original material. In a sense The Ring was a valuable learning experience—afterward Hitchcock would work with a script by another writer—a form that Hitchcock could then shape to his ends.

The most unusual of the silent Hitchcock’s, The Farmer’s Wife (1927) was based on an English stage play of the same title. The story involves the decision by a widower squire to remarry and how he sets about to achieve his goal. Hitchcock clearly liked the play as it was, and he set out to with an intent to translate the play into a film with a minimum of change. The result is a bright, very British comedy of manners. The film is greatly helped by a terrific cast, led by Jameson Thomas as the squire in search of a wife. The Farmer’s Wife was one of the first of Hitchcock’s films to take advantage of actors who could bring their personality and charisma into the stew that makes for good filmmaking, a strategy that was to greatly help Alfred as his career progressed. The Farmer’s Wife is so circumscribed in its intent that those who look for Hitchcock’s ‘dark genius’ will be disappointed, but those who like simple English character comedy will be rewarded with a film that shows Hitchcock could have gone a very different direction in his career if he had wished.

Champagne (1928), a vehicle for British star Betty Balfour, relates the story of a spoiled rich girl who has to start working for a living when her father tries to teach her a lesson and tells her the family is broke. While having some amusing situations scattered through the film, my impression is that the cast and crew were just marking time.

Hitchcock’s next film is set on the Island of Mann, The Manxman (1929). In this romance, two friends, a sailor and a lawyer, fall in love with a woman who marries one of the men but realizes she loves the other. Hitchcock seems to not really belief the ludicrous plot of this story, and the result is one of his least interesting silent films. The limited acting ability of the lead character (played by real-life boxer Carl Brisson) is also huge weight to The Manxman, and makes clear the advantage that Hitchcock had later in his career when he had actors like Cary Grant to gloss over weak plot points.

Finally, Hitchcock made his first masterpiece, Blackmail (1929). This is an unusual film in that it exists in both silent and sound versions. The silent, arguably the better film, details the problems a woman has after she, in a pique of anger with her boyfriend, goes up to the apartment of a painter. While resisting his advances, the woman kills the painter, and then she is left with the hugely embarrassing problem of trying to explain why she was in his studio. Her efforts to extricate herself from the situation only plunge her deeper into a web of duplicity, wrapping her and her policeman boyfriend into a world of lies and deception.

Blackmail is a brilliant essay into the themes that Hitchcock would explore the rest of this career: sex, love, sin and guilt. Hitchcock transposed deep religious questions into a context that was more relevant to a secularized audience—what was original sin in today’s world, and could we really be redeemed? Blackmail ends as an ‘open text’ not giving us any easy answers and is profoundly unsettling by its implication that a world that denies the existence of God also must deny the concept of redemption.

Redemption or not, as it became clear that sound would soon be the standard for motion pictures, Alfred quickly re-shot Blackmail as a sound feature. Blackmail was a hit, playing in both silent and sound versions in theaters across Britain and a thirty-year old Hitchcock emerged from the silent era as the Britain’s premier director.

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Tinky said...

That year (1899) must have been something special: not only Hitchcock but Noel Coward and Duke Ellington were born then. I'd love to see a play about the three of them. Thanks for the synopses; it's nice to have these films in order.

Anonymous said...

Yay for guest posts! Unfortunately I've yet to see one of Hitchcock's silent films (I've seen a few parts of Blackmail, but that doesn't count). I really must rectify this situation soon.