What director’s trademarks include nail-biting setpieces on historic precipices, the “wrong man” accused of a crime, the dangerous (usually icy blonde) female, murder with an outsized carving knife, and creative cameo appearances in his owns films? Even the greenest film school freshman knows the answer: Alfred Hitchcock.
But movie lovers who recognize these tropes from iconic films like VERTIGO (1958), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) and PSYCHO (1960) might be surprised to learn that Hitchcock first explored his pet themes more than three decades earlier, before pictures learned to talk.
Enter The Hitchcock 9.
After a successful run at San Francisco’s Castro Theater and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the touring program of Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films hit New York this week– more specifically, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM was the third stop on a nationwide, 11-venue tour that heads next to the AFI’s Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland (for five films) and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (where four of the titles will be screened). BAM screenings took place at the Harvey Theater, a majestic 1904 Vaudeville house recently renovated for film programs, and the BAM Rose Cinema, a former music hall that was transformed into a movie theater in 1998 (with historic proscenium intact).
Beautifully restored by the British Film Institute – their largest restoration effort to date – with funding from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and an assortment of charitable trusts, film societies and private individuals, the films in The Hitchcock 9 were produced between 1925 and 1929 and represent the earliest extant examples of Hitchcock’s developing genius. For Gainsborough Pictures (founded in 1924) he directed THE PLEASURE GARDEN (produced at UFA studio and released in Germany in 1925 before its U.K. debut), THE LODGER (1927), DOWNHILL (1927), and EASY VIRTUE (1927). And for British International Pictures, Hitch helmed THE RING (1927), THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928), CHAMPAGNE (1928), THE MANXMAN (1929), and BLACKMAIL (1929). A tenth film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE (1926, Gainsborough) remains lost.
All were completed before Alfred Hitchcock turned 30. If that doesn’t make you want to increase your productivity, I don’t know what will.
I’m happy to say that I saw all of the films in The Hitchcock 9 series at BAM, spread out over five gloriously black and white days and heavily tinted nights. The collective experience was one of the most memorable cinematic adventures of my moviegoing life, and it’s forced an immediate and complete reassessment of my perspectives on Hitchcock’s body of work. I had little-to-no awareness of his early career in the U.K. and, while two of the films from this period are thrillers – the “Is he or isn’t he?” serial killer mystery THE LODGER and the murderous melodrama BLACKMAIL – the other seven were delightfully unfamiliar in tone and content.
Not surprisingly, the two suspense films drew the largest crowds at BAM. Both were near sell-outs at the 834-seat Harvey, which, with its ‘timeless ruin’ architectural style, is a hell of a spooky place to see a silent. Sitting in the back of the balcony I half expected Hitchcock’s portly poltergeist to pop out from behind one of the columns and bid all of us in the cheap seats a “good evening.”
While I enjoyed the two thrillers, the real revelations for me were the films that seemed the least “Hitchcockian,” at least on the surface. My highlights: the screwball comedy CHAMPAGNE with a delightful Betty Balfour (the “British Mary Pickford”) as a spoiled, party girl heiress; the lyrical love triangle THE MANXMAN, set in a fishing village on the Isle of Man; DOWNHILL, a dark melodrama about the downward descent of a prep school golden boy; THE RING, a gritty tale of a carnival pugilist and the woman who breaks his heart; and Hitchcock’s directorial debut, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, which I like to think of as BRITISH GOLD DIGGERS OF 1926. Even the films that didn’t grab me – THE FARMER’S WIFE, a broad comedy about a loutish farmer out to find a bride and EASY VIRTUE, an adaptation of a Noel Coward play about a wealthy family’s rejection of the previously married wife of their scion – were still thoroughly fascinating.
Throughout even the most narratively unfamiliar of these early works, you can still see the genesis of techniques, locations and storytelling quirks Hitchcock would employ for the next half century. THE PLEASURE GARDEN features a “menaced bride.” THE LODGER is a “wrong man” story infused with dark, perverse humor. THE RING takes place largely in a carnival setting, which Hitchcock would revisit in later films like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. DOWNHILL is all about dangerous females and transference of guilt. THE FARMER’S WIFE is a battle-of-the-sexes parable. CHAMPAGNE is packed with artful transitional devices and trick shots. And BLACKMAIL features a hat trick of Hitchcock hallmarks: large knife, extended cameo, and climatic chase across the roof of the British Museum.
The films in The Hitchcock 9 series are distributed by Rialto Pictures and Park Circus, and were screened in DCP at BAM (at some locations they will be projected in 35mm). For the most part, all looked sharp and surprisingly gorgeous, a far cry from the horrendous transfers that have circulated for years on public domain DVDs and You Tube. The exception was EASY VIRTUE, which exists only in damaged, abridged 16mm projection prints and still looks a bit fuzzy and dark, even after extensive cleanup efforts. Opening and inter-titles in EASY VIRTUE and most of the other films have been reconstructed by recreating original fonts, and all look entirely seamless. Hitchcock spent the early years of his career designing titles for silents, and his artful use of graphics in these films demonstrate another career-encompassing trademark.
For me, one of the great joys of this series was the live music that accompanied each screening. The BFI has commissioned “modern” scores by contemporary British artists for each of the nine films but, for the most part, those tracks are not being used in this screening series. Venues in the U.S. have opted for music from a combination of renowned silent film accompanists and local artists, making each stop on the tour a unique experience.
At BAM, the Colorado-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied THE RING, BLACKMAIL, and THE LODGER with scores compiled from “music that came from the collections of movie theater orchestras” of the era, orchestra director and pianist Rodney Sauer told me in an email.
“They’re not exact ‘historic’ scores that were heard on the films’ original release, but they are scores created in the same way, from the same material,” he said. “So they are scores that ‘could have been’ heard in the 1920s.”
Led by Sauer on piano, the quintet performed on the Harvey’s historic stage, as the 35-foot screen towered above them. Members included David Short on cello, clarinetist Brian Collins, Dawn Kramer on trumpet and guest violinist Emily Lewis. Sauer’s mournful piano solos during THE LODGER were a standout, as was the band’s high-energy orchestrations during the bustling procedural sequence that opens BLACKMAIL. I particularly appreciated Mont Alto’s period-appropriate approach to scoring, and you can too (if you’re lucky). They’ll be performing at upcoming Hitchcock 9 screenings at the AFI Silver Theater and the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Music Box Theater in Chicago, with the potential for additional dates to be added.
One of the BFI-commissioned scores that did get used at BAM was British composer and pianist Stephen Horne’s haunting music for THE MANXMAN, which employs traditional melodies unique to the film’s Isle of Man setting. With Irish harpist Diana Rowan, Horne performed a score he had written for a much larger ensemble by playing multiple instruments simultaneously. He seamlessly transitioned from piano to accordion to flute, in some cases playing all three at the same time. Audience members who couldn’t see Horne from their seats must have wondered where the rest of the band was hiding. It was a flawless display of musical multi-tasking the likes of which I have never seen.
Horne’s one-man-band approach continued with solo efforts at screenings of DOWNHILL, THE FARMER’S WIFE, and EASY VIRTUE on Monday and Tuesday at the BAM Rose auditorium. In addition, Horne performed with the front of the upright piano open, so he could manipulate the guts like a sonic surgeon. During EASY VIRTUE, Horne represented both sides of a telephone conversation by plucking on the exposed vertical wires of the piano’s innards while, on-screen, 21-year-old Benita Hume (the future Mrs. Ronald Coleman) played an eavesdropping switchboard operator. I think Hitchcock would have loved Horne’s creative ingenuity.
Steve Sterner, a fixture at the piano at Film Forum in Lower Manhattan, closed out the series on Wednesday with a double feature of THE PLEASURE GARDEN and CHAMPAGNE. I’ve seen Sterner play dozens of times in the New York area, but his jaunty accompaniment for CHAMPAGNE may go down as my favorite of his performances.
Sadly, there are no immediate plans for a DVD release of The Hitchcock 9, owning, apparently, to rights issues. So if you happen to live in Washington D.C., Cambridge, Seattle, Chicago, Berkeley, Columbus, or Houston, I strongly suggest you make plans to attend your local screenings. And, if you decide to travel to any of the venues from out of town, let me suggest you take the train. As you know if you love Hitchcock, all sorts of interesting things can happen on the rails.
For more information on The Hitchcock 9, click here.