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Hitchcock: why people are still talking about silent movies

By Todd Hitchcock

08 July 2013 - 16:02

In the biggest restoration project they have ever undertaken, the British Film Institute, a formal partner of the British Council, has restored nine of Alfred Hitchcock’s early silent movies. Made between 1925 and 1929, the films are among the greatest achievements of British silent film. Todd Hitchcock of the American Film Institute Silver Theatre explains their lasting appeal.

For an art form that some might say is dead, silent films have sure enjoyed a long, lively, and lucrative afterlife. The Oscar-winning ‘The Artist’, a bittersweet homage to the silent film era, is only the most recent comeback of this unique interdisciplinary medium — the marriage of moving pictures and expressive music. Artists like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are still internationally recognized icons in popular culture, with their silent films and comedic wizardry enjoyed by audiences and discovered by new ones decade after decade. As it did for many silent era stars, the coming of sound (“the talkies”) inhibited these performers’ well-honed talents and performance style. But some proved adept working in both silent and sound, with Alfred Hitchcock being among the foremost.

Still an up-and-comer during the 1920s, having only recently been promoted through the ranks to director, Hitchcock’s silent pictures are fascinating both for their clear relationship to his later work—especially on thrillers like ‘Blackmail’ and ‘The Lodger’ — but also for their anomalies, including a number of adaptations of stage dramas and comedies that aren’t typically identified with Hitchcock’s work. But in these too he proved a dab hand, lending his wicked wit to liven up the narratives of the stage-bound originals, and often experimenting with camera and editing techniques in their filmic realization. In this, he was greatly influenced by international films he’d seen at the London Film Society screenings, including those by Germany’s F.W. Murnau (‘Nosferatu’, ‘The Last Laugh’, ‘Faust’) and the Soviet Union’s Sergei Eisenstein (‘Battleship Potemkin’).

Drawing on the work of these innovative filmmakers, Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of what was then being attempted technically and aesthetically by British filmmakers, by attempting more daring camera movement and surprising placement; designing more complex process photography and skillful use of models (for Hitchcock, a constant well into the sound era); and applying faster, more rhythmic editing.

In restoring the nine surviving Hitchcock silent features (a tenth, ‘The Mountain Eagle’, is missing and presumed lost), the British Film Institute has provided audiences with the opportunity to discover and enjoy the least-known films created by the world’s most famous filmmaker. Sparkling new 35mm film prints, many including footage missing from previously available copies, have been created. Hitchcock’s directorial debut, 1925’s ‘The Pleasure Garden’, benefited the most from the BFI’s world-wide scouring of film archives, locating and restoring some 20 minutes of previously missing footage.

With Hitchcock’s eventual move to Hollywood in 1939 still more than a decade away, the films from this era can also be seen as his most “British.” Sights on display here include the rugged coast of the Isle of Man, and a fishing village governed by age-old tradition (‘The Manxman’); a quintessential English boys’ public school (‘Downhill’); a London boarding house in a neighborhood terrorized by a Jack the Ripper-like killer (‘The Lodger: A Tale of the London Fog’); and the bravura chase sequence between London bobbies and their criminal quarry that culminates atop the British Museum’s roof (‘Blackmail’). “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” Hitchcock asserted, on more than one occasion. Viewers in Washington DC will be able to see—and hear—for themselves this summer, when the films will be screened at the US National Gallery of Art and the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, with live musical accompaniment.

If you’re in the US in July, you can see ‘The Hitchcock 9: Alfred Hitchcock’s Silent Films‘ at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Full details on the film screenings and schedules. 

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