Back in March, the BFI announced that its restorations of nine of Alfred Hitchcock’s first ten films (historians are fairly confident that The Mountain Eagle (1927) is lost for good) would be touring the US under the catchy program title The Hitchcock 9. That tour begins today at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, presented by the Silent Film Festival, and rolls on to Los Angeles (June 27 through July 13), presented by LACMA and the Academy, and New York’s BAMcinématek (June 29 through July 3). In San Francisco and New York, these silent films, all made between 1925 and 1929, will be accompanied by live performances by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and British composer/pianist Stephen Horne. The BFI notes that further gigs are lining up for Washington DC, Berkeley, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, Boston, “and other American cities.”
In the LA Weekly and Bay Guardian, both Doug Cummings and Cheryl Eddy, respectively, note that Hitchcock had a very good 2012 and that the tour extends the revival. Last year, Vertigo (1958) knocked Citizen Kane (1941) out of its #1 slot in Sight & Sound‘s critics poll; major retrospectives rolled out in London and Berkeley; two biopics snapped at each other’s heels, Hitchcock, with Anthony Hopkins playing the master, and the The Girl, with Toby Jones; and universal fascination with Psycho (1960) shows no sign of abating. A&E’s announced a second season of its prequel, Bates Motel, and just today, the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey talks with James Franco about his exhibition Psycho Nacirema, made in cooperation with Douglas Gordon, whose 24 Hour Psycho serves as an inspiration.
“But the truth is Hitchcock has always been a fixture of our fascination,” writes Doug Cummings, “from his popular films and television shows to his countless imitators (including Mel Brooks spoofs and Brian De Palma homages); in recent years, several ambitious documentaries (The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Double Take, Something’s Gonna Live) have thoughtfully probed the filmmaker’s legacy.” In Los Angeles, as the headline over his piece suggests, June might as well be “Hitchcock Month.” Cinefamily is presenting Hitchcock B-Sides & Rarities through June 26, “featuring less known or appreciated Hitchcock works.” And on June 19, the Academy will present a 3D digital restoration of Dial M for Murder (1954).
In San Francisco, The Hitchcock 9 opens tonight with Blackmail (1929); in Los Angeles, the Academy will be presenting both the silent and sound versions (Hitchcock’s first venture into sound) on June 18. Doug Cummings: “It’s fascinating to compare the two Blackmail films; both contain early manifestations of Hitchcockian trademarks such as clueless police, ominous staircases, and a climactic chase on a national landmark (in this case, the British Museum). In transferring his vision to sound, Hitchcock retains his expressionist visuals (a neon sign dissolves from cocktail shaker to stabbing weapon) but adds expressionist sounds, such as when a character jabbers on about knives, and—reflecting the heroine’s mental state—the dialogue is muffled except for the word ‘knife,’ which keeps audibly piercing the soundtrack.”
But for Doug, “the standout film in the series” is The Ring (1927): “The only movie of his long career in which Hitchcock took sole writing credit, it is, curiously, not a thriller so much as a melodrama about two boxers who gradually come to blows over a woman they both love…. As always, Hitchcock delights in subjective perspectives, using reflections and distorted imagery for dramatic punctuation. It solidified Hitchcock’s critical reputation and paved the way for his future fame.”
Cheryl Eddy spotlights The Lodger (1926), “a thriller that takes its stylistic cues from German Expressionist films, particularly 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Sassy model Daisy (June Tripp, credited as ‘Miss June’) declares ‘No more peroxide for yours truly!’ when London’s headlines begin shrieking about a serial killer, ‘The Avenger,’ who exclusively targets blondes. Enter a gloomy-yet-dreamy stranger (Ivor Novello), who takes a room at the boarding house run by Daisy’s parents; it doesn’t take long before he makes the landlady uneasy (he does wear a cape, after all), though Daisy finds him intriguing. Naturally, her boyfriend—another cop—becomes highly jealous, not to mention suspicious. Blackmail and The Lodger are stuffed with elements that would later be easily identifiable as ‘Hitchcockian.'”
Fernando F. Croce on The Pleasure Garden (1925): “The bravura opening starts with what Dreyer once described as ‘a strong sense of the vertical,’ chorine after chorine racing down a spiral staircase followed by a collage of views of the stage show, the girls caught between the smoky theatre crew behind the curtains and the front row of tuxedoed lechers. One patron trades his monocle for a pair of binoculars in a bleary POV shot (Nabokov’s oculus?) and then approaches the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s blondes, who, in keeping with the sequence’s fascination with obfuscated vision, turns out to be a brunette (Virginia Valli)…. Misleading façades and overlapping triangles, above all Hitchcock’s conception of cinema as spectacle that is consciously watched. Much of the backstage drama goes into Stage Fright while Under Capricorn takes up the portrait of a betrayed relationship overseas, Secret Agent’s howling pooch is already here, licking the heroine’s toes.”
Neil Young on Downhill (1927), widely referred to as either the or one of the “darkest” of Hitch’s early works: “Based on a hit play by Ivor Novello and Constance Collier, Hitchcock’s fourth completed feaure stars Novello himself as public schoolboy Roddy, son of Sir Thomas (Norman McKinnel) and Lady (Lilian Braithwaite) Berwick. Roddy seems set for a glowing future—until he takes the ‘fall’ for a fellow-student’s ‘indiscretion’ and finds himself on a downward spiral into shame and exile. Superlative technique from the 27-year-old Hitchcock almost—but not quite—compensates for the major script problems.”
Easy Virtue (1927) is an adaptation of Noël Coward’s play, which superficially “appears to be about a simple clash between attitudes within social classes and how they are affected by an intrusive media,” wrote D.K. Holm a few years ago. “Hitchcock seems not to be particularly interested in any of this, even though the film pre-echoes later films such as Rebecca, The Paradine Case, and Marnie. Rather, Hitchcock, as he had in earlier films, amuses his arty side with dramatic visuals that essentially detract from the clean, middlebrow narrative while also making moral, if obvious points, and social criticism.”
LACMA describes The Farmer’s Wife (1928) as “a rare venture into romantic comedy” which “shuns Hitchcock’s usual ambience of treachery and hazard in favor of bucolic farce.” But what I really want to point to here are David Cairns‘s notes on Lilian Hall-Davis, who appears here and in The Ring:
LHD was born, without her hyphen, in Mile End, a working class area of London. As a silent movie star, she was able to affect a more high-class persona, but when sound came in, her accent gave her away. Work dried up. In 1933, she turned on the gas taps and cut her throat. Quite apart from the tragedy and horror of this tale, there’s a point to made about Britain and its cinema. In both Hitchcock films, Lillian played working-class characters. But it was not acceptable for her to sound like one. This may be a small part of why Britain struggled while Hollywood thrived. Authentic working-class accents were scarcely heard in British films, except in regional comedies, and even then, they were often music-hall concoctions. Leading men and leading ladies always sounded like upper-middle-class tennis-playing toffs. The stage informed British acting, whereas in America, a purely cinematic approach seemed to evolve naturally.
BAM’s notes on Champagne (1928): “This stylishly frothy comedy concerns a bratty flapper (ebullient silent superstar Balfour) whose millionaire father decides to teach her a lesson by pretending he’s broke. As our heroine plunges into a shabby working-class subsistence, Hitchcock locates the sinister undercurrents in this riches-to-rags reverse fairy tale. Among its stylistic innovations: cinema history’s first freeze-frame.”
“Set in a remote Isle of Man fishing community, The Manxman  is Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate silent film and one of the best and most mature works of his early career,” argues the Silent Film Festival. “The story, adapted from the bestselling 1894 novel by Sir Hall Caine, follows two boyhood friends who take markedly different paths in adulthood: Pete becomes a fisherman, Philip a lawyer. Both fall in love with the same woman, the daughter of a puritanical Methodist, bringing them into conflict not only with their own moral code but also that of the strict Manx society.” Ed Howard: “It’s the typical kind of vaguely homoerotic love triangle film where the guys seem more interested in each other than the girl they’re ostensibly vying for, the kind of story that Howard Hawks always infused with rich subtextual substance. Hitchcock doesn’t seem as interested in that subtext, though of course it’s readily available for plumbing anyway, intrinsic to the story and the constant emotionally charged glances between the two leads…. Working with a tired plot and a somewhat inconsistent cast, Hitchcock elevates the material a bit with his elegant style.”
Update, 6/15: Brian Darr notes that the Castro will be screening 35mm prints of the four films made at the Gainsborough studio (The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill, and Easy Virtue); the other films will be presented on DCP. He talks with Silent Film Festival artistic director Anita Monga about the decision to bring literally hundreds of pounds of film over to the west coast.
Update, 6/16: None of the 9 are here, but still. From Jean-Baptiste Lefournier:
Updates, 6/17: Brian Darr notes that, accompanying The Manxman, Horne “incorporated traditional Manx melodies beautifully into his own romantic playing style; at one point his arpeggiations brought to my mind Michael Nyman’s celebrated score for Jane Campion’s The Piano, but for most of the performance the music felt entirely connected to Hitchcock’s film, and it alone. I expect I will have trouble being able to enjoy watching The Manxman with any other score, this one felt so close to definitive.”
Meredith Brody was at the Castro all day on Saturday and reports for Thompson on Hollywood.
Update, 6/19: Dave Kehr in the New York Times: “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… 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.” As for the Hitchcock 9 program as a whole, Kehr notes that “roughly $3 million” was raised through a combination of private and public funds. “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.”
Update, 6/20: “Next month, it seems that UK theatre goers will have a chance to check out Hitchcock’s foray into dimensionalized terror, Dial M For Murder,” notes Jason Gorber at Twitch. “I’ve written at length about the newest restoration, back when it played at TIFF’s Lightbox last year. As I gushed then: ‘The restoration truly looks quite amazing. It’s absolutely a must-see in 3D, ideally with an eager audience. The film is so much fun, the 3D imagery such an integral part of the way that Hitch composed the film, that it’d be a shame to miss out.'”
Update, 6/24: Back in May, Michael T. Toole asked San Francisco Silent Film Festival president nine questions about the Hitchcock 9 for Film International.
Updates, 6/29: “Most of the pleasure to be had from The Ring today is seeing Hitchcock working out his ideas,” writes Glenn Kenny: “his cinematic apparatus, while remarkably assured, isn’t entirely refined. But there’s a raw exuberance to the way he throws one effect after another. For the next thirty-plus years of his career, you never see that enthusiasm flag, but you do see it applied more virtuosically. While this movie plays awkwardly to that bugaboo of cinephilia, the ‘contemporary sensibility,’ it’s also entirely clear that in The Ring, Hitchcock isn’t just learning the ropes, he’s making them.”
For Artforum, Melissa Anderson focuses on The Ring and Blackmail, adding that “whether anomalous or presaging the director’s later classics, the titles in The Hitchcock 9 prove what Truffaut so ardently believed: ‘In Hitchcock’s work a filmmaker is bound to find the answer to many of his own problems, including the most fundamental question of all: how to express oneself by purely visual means.'”
For the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, “the chief reason to see The Hitchcock 9 on the big screen is to bask in how gorgeous the films are—the satiny quality of the images is the stuff of moviegoing euphoria. The Ring, in particular, shimmers with a romantic idealism we don’t usually associate with Hitchcock: Two lovers, in a moment of contentment that’s about to be broken, gaze at their image reflected in a pool. The sequence is luminous and hypnotic, reminiscent of another deeply romantic picture, F.W. Murnau‘s Sunrise, also made that year. This is a Hitchcock we don’t often see, a filmmaker with his training wheels still on, eager to prove how much he can do. The Hitchcock 9 shows genius taking shape, frame by frame, sneaking up on us without the benefit of words. There is no need for them.”
Downhill “augurs the director’s The 39 Steps (1935), The Wrong Man (1956), and North by Northwest (1959) in that it’s about a man who has to pay the consequences of a crime he didn’t commit,” writes Graham Fuller for Artinfo. “One of the subtexts of Downhill is fear of women’s sexuality, manifested in the Clara Bow-like waitress’s blatant come-ons to Roddy and his friend in a school tuck-shop’s back room, in Julia throwing her head back with her mouth open when Roddy enters her dressing room, in the lust of the bovine lonely woman, whose faint moustache shows up as the light of dawn penetrates the dancehall. This fear is exacerbated by Novello’s fragile, epicene quality, which had bordered on neurasthenia in The Lodger.”
Update, 6/30: Florence Almozini, Program Director for BAMcinématek, and Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.
Update, 7/4: “It’s not that I ever lost appreciation for Hitchcock,” writes Michael T. Toole for Film International, “but somehow watching his embryonic work, I savored again the beauty and ease that he conveyed his narratives, with images over dialogue. The result is not only fluid, cinematic, but the connection the audience gets by witnessing the joy of creative effort.”
Update, 8/2: Vince Keenan caught the Hitchcock 9 at Seattle’s SIFF Cinema recently and offers observations on the lot of them.
Update, 8/16: Marilyn Ferdinand writes up an appreciation of The Lodger.