Breaking the Silence on BAM’s Showing of “The Hitchcock 9”

27 07 2013

945616_10151595414878713_1239777943_nThe Brooklyn Academy of Music recently ran its “Hitchcock 9” series, in which they screened restored prints of silent movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock: “The Pleasure Garden,” “The Lodger,” “The Ring,” “Easy Virtue,” “Downhill,” “Champagne,” “The Farmer’s Wife,” “The Manxman” and “Blackmail.” Each film was accompanied by live orchestral music created for the films, which made this a really memorable event. (No “Mountain Eagle,” of course.)

On the weekend of June 29-30 I went to screenings of “The Lodger” and “Blackmail.” As you may recall from my blog post on “Blackmail,” here, this was Hitchcock’s first sound film, and he wasted no time in taking advantage of this newly added asset. I had seen the sound version, but knew that “Blackmail” was made in 600445_10151686404218713_934287928_nboth sound and silent versions, since very few theaters in England had sound equipment at the time.

Now having seen both versionf of it, I think “Blackmail works much better with sound than without. The silent version seems to be exactly the same film, but with added, rather lengthy title cards, and even the introduction of sound into Hitchcock’s film world is handled with great subtlety. The film begins with a mostly silent sequence in which the police from New Scotland Yard are seen capturing and bringing in a suspect. After he is fingerprinted, the cops go off duty, and it is only when they are in the locker room and getting ready for their evenings off that they begin to talk. This makes for a great, smooth transition in which the plot is first driven visually and then through dialogue; without sound, an element that enriches the viewing experience is lost.

1000192_585059604848630_1893416142_nAnother memorable scene also revolves around dialogue. It’s the one in which the nosy neighbor talks to Alice and her parents while they’re eating breakfast the morning after Alice was forced to stab her attacker to death. In the sound version, the neighbor seems to say the word knife about a dozen times in two minutes, and Hitchcock plays with the sound until all Alice hears clearly is the word knife. Without sound, Hitchcock must resort to title cards that say knife a few times – but it does not have the same impact as hearing it.

In fact, lengthy title cards are a problem all the way through the silent version of the film. Hitchcock always took great care to keep his title cards brief and few, but here, as they substitute for spoken exposition, they have to convey a lot of information.

The last place where the lack of sound hurts the storytelling is at the very end of the film. Alice enters the1003691_585775958110328_773615495_n inspector’s office to confess, only to find her detective boyfriend there already. The inspector receives a phone call, and the couple leave the office so Frank can tell Alice that the death of the blackmailer means she’s off the hook. In the sound version, that moment is followed by a voice (Hitchcock’s, in fact) saying that the inspector will see them now. As they head toward his office once more, the viewer must wonder whether she still will confess, which makes for a strong, ambiguous ending. Without sound, though, they merely walk off together; it isn’t even clear that where they are going.

Clearly, the sound version of “Blackmail” is more successful than the silent one. Yet it was the silent version that most people in the U.K. saw at the time, and it was very big hit, one that pointed the way toward Hitchcock’s mid-1930s string of thrillers.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Earliest Known Film, “The White Shadow”

28 12 2012

5944In August of 2011, film fans were thrilled to learn that a portion of the lost 1924 movie “The White Shadow” had been found, making it the earliest known work by Alfred Hitchcock.

In the excitement of this discovery, much of the coverage ignored the fact that the film was directed by Graham Cutts, not Hitchcock — and the fact that Hitchcock worked on it did not make it in any way resemble later films like “The 39 Steps” or “Notorious.” The three reels of WhiteShadow05“The White Shadow” (out of a total of six) show that it was a melodrama much like Hitchcock’s earliest films.

Despite this, there is some fascinating history here. The film was directed by Hitchcock’s early mentor, film director Graham Cutts, and produced by Michael Balcon and Victor Saville for Balcon-Saville-Freedman Productions. It was distributed in the U.K. by C.M. Woolf, and in the U.S. by Lewis Selznick (whose sons Myron and David would eventually become Hitchcock’s agent and studio head, respectively). This was only the second film from B-S-F, following the success of Cutts’s previous effort, “Woman to Woman.” Woolf, who had a financial interest in B-S-F, disliked “The White Shadow,” as he disliked most films with any sort of artistic vision; he would later block the distribution of the first films Hitchcock directed himself.

WhiteShadow03In his memoir, Balcon said of this film, “Engrossed in our first production [Woman to Woman], we had made no preparations for the second. Caught on the hop, we rushed into production with a story called The White Shadow. It was as big a flop as Woman to Woman had been a success.”

The film stars Betty Compson in dual roles as twin sisters Nancy and Georgina Brent. Nancy, coming home to England from school in Paris, meets American Robin Field (played by Clive Brook), who promises to look her up at home. We soon learn that Nancy won’t obey her dissolute, wealthy father. Nancy, the titles cards explain, was born “without soul,” unlike her good sister, Georgina. Nancy soon tires of living a quiet life in the country. After leaving a note saying that that she is “sick of everything,” she takes up residence at The Cat Who Laughs, a nightclub with dancing, drinking and gambling.

5991Meanwhile, Robin has decided to ask Nancy to marry him – but a friend swears that he saw her at The Cat Who Laughs.

The film ends here, but a plot summary explains that Robin confronts Nancy at the club and breaks off their relationship. Georgina, who had come to the club to tell Nancy that their mother had died, witnesses the whole thing. Later, believing that Georgina is Nancy, Robin begs her forgiveness, and Nancy convinces Georgina to take her place and marry Robin.

The mistaken identity plot is fairly ridiculous, but there are two things that make “The White Shadow” worth watching: Betty Compson’s spirited performance, and the beautifully framed shots, captured by cameraman Claude L. McDonald. As the movie’s scenarist, Hitchcock adapted the story from the novel “Children of Chance” by Michael Morton. Hitchcock also served as assistant director, art director and editor on the film.

This was the second of five films Hitchcock would work on with Graham Cutts over the course of two years before he moved to on to direct “The Pleasure Garden.”  Compson would work with Hitchcock again in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” in 1941.

Advertisement for "The White Shadow" from a distributor catalogue.

Advertisement for “The White Shadow” from a distributor catalogue.

The failure of “The White Shadow” led C.M. Woolf to terminate his business relationship with Balcon-Saville-Freedman. This in turn led Balcon, Saville and Freedman to regroup as Gainsborough Pictures, the company that would give Alfred Hitchcock the chance to become a director.

You can watch the existing footage of “The White Shadow” here.

100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock Part 1

28 09 2010

Recently, Roger Ebert posted his list of “100 Great Moments in the Movies” on his Chicago Sun-Times blog. After counting how many of those movies I’d seen (58!) I thought it would be fun to do something like it for our own Mr. Hitchcock. Since I’m only up to 1947 in his long career, I thought I’d split the list and post the first half now.

Here, then, are the first 50 of 100 Moments with Alfred Hitchcock, with annotations below:

  1. A cad is haunted by visions of a dead girl in “The Pleasure Garden.”
  2. A young woman’s silent scream opens Hitchcock’s first great movie, “The Lodger.”
  3. The Lodger (Ivor Novello) arrives at his new home, startling his landlady.
  4. An angry mob tries to kill the Lodger.
  5. Amateur boxer “One-Round” Jack Saunder is beaten by boxing champ Bob Corby in “The Ring”
  6. Ivor Novello rides down an escalator as he falls from grace in “Downhill”
  7. Farmer Sweetland makes a list of potential new brides in “The Farmer’s Wife.”
  8. A young divorcee gives herself up to the press after being humiliated in court at the end of “Easy Virtue.”
  9. A detective watches his quarry through the stem of a glass in “Champagne.”
  10. Hitchcock brings the Isle of Man to life in “The Manxman.”
  11. Hitchcock teases actress Anny Ondra in the sound test for “Blackmail.”
  12. A woman is forced to kill her attacker in “Blackmail.”
  13. The blackmailer is chased through the British Museum in “Blackmail.
  14. A back-alley speech about Ireland’s freedom is disrupted by gunfire in “Juno and The Paycock.”
  15. A cross-dressing killer leaps from the high-wire to his death in “Murder!”
  16. At an auction in “The Skin Game,” nouveau riche Edmund Gwenn outbids wealthy aristocrats.
  17. A young couple books passage home on a tramp steamer after an unsuccessful cruise, only to nearly die when the ship begins to sink in “Rich and Strange.”
  18. Hitchcock revisits his German expressionist roots with “Number 17.”
  19. Johann Strauss outshines his father when he conducts “The Blue Danube Waltz” in “Waltzes from Vienna.”
  20. Peter Lorre’s surprisingly charming terrorist in “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
  21. Richard Hannay tries to hide from the police by kissing an unwilling fellow traveller in “The 39 Steps.” Unwilling fellow traveller immediately gives him up to the authorities.
  22. “Am I right, sir?” With his dying breath, Mr. Memory reveals the secret of “The 39 Steps.”
  23. Peter Lorre shoves the wrong man — a suspected spy — off a cliff to his death in “Secret Agent.”
  24. A saboteur is killed by his former comrades in the explosive finale to “Sabotage.”
  25. The spectacular tracking shot that takes viewers from an overhead view of a hotel lobby across a crowded dance floor and into the eyes of a killer in “Young and Innocent.”
  26. The rush to secure rooms in a crowded hotel lobby at the start of “The Lady Vanishes.”
  27. The young lovers of “The Lady Vanishes” enter the Foreign Office to find old Mrs. Froy alive and well after all.
  28. Charles Laughton climbs a ship’s mast, then throws himself to his death to avoid capture in “Jamaica Inn.”
  29. Joan Fontaine opens “Rebecca” with the line “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again…”
  30. Mrs. Danvers drives Joan Fontaine half crazy while describing her late mistress in “Rebecca.”
  31. Mrs. Danvers refuses to leave her late mistress’s room as Manderly burns to the ground in “Rebecca.”
  32. An American reporter in Holland chases an assassin through an umbrella toting crowd, then hops into a car and continues the chase into the windmill-dotted countryside.
  33. “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” grill each other over breakfast, leading to a break in their marriage.
  34. John Aysgarth charms — and is charmed by — Lina McLaidlaw at the start of “Suspicion.”
  35. Lina imagines Aysgarth killing his best friend in “Suspicion.”
  36. Aysgarth brings his ailing wife a frightening looking glass of milk in “Suspicion.”
  37. Barry Kane and Patricia Martin encounter a troupe of circus freaks in “Saboteur.”
  38. A fifth columnist plummets to his death from the Statue of Liberty in “Saboteur.”
  39. Mr. Newton and Herbert discuss the best way to kill one another over a family dinner in “Shadow of a Doubt.”
  40. Uncle Charlie, “the Merry Widow Murderer,” momentarily thinks he’s off the hook in “Shadow of a Doubt.” Bounding up the stairs to get ready for dinner, he turns to see his niece framed in a doorway, still certain that he is a killer.
  41. A young pilot realizes that his naivete may have helped the enemy in “Bon Voyage.”
  42. Although imprisoned, a French Resistance leader struggles to secure escape for his friends in “Aventure Malgache.”
  43. Walter Slezak is hauled into the “Lifeboat,” only to mutter “danke schein,” revealing to his fellow passengers that he’s German.
  44. Slezak’s character, now revealed to be the captain of the U-boat that sunk his fellow survivor’s ship, exhibits what seems to be super-human stamina, rowing his fellow survivors toward a German ship.
  45. As Gregory Peck kisses Ingrid Bergman for the first time in “Spellbound,” a series of doors open, symbolizing Bergman’s icy doctor’s sexual awakening.
  46. Gregory Peck breaks through to the traumatic childhood memory of accidentally killing his brother in a shocking, silent moment of “Spellbound.”
  47. Hitchcock outfoxes the censors by having Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant kiss briefly and repeatedly in “Notorious.”
  48. “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.” Devlin finds Alicia half-dead at the hands of her own husband in “Notorious.”
  49. Devlin leaves Alicia’s husband to his ruthless comrades at the end of “Notorious.
  50. Mrs. Paradine tells her lawyer, Gregory Peck, that she despises him even though he’s won her freedom in “The Paradine Case.”

Alfred Hitchcock leaves the silent era behind with “The Manxman”

14 03 2010

“The only point of interest about that movie is that it was my last silent one . . . it was a very banal picture.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Late in 1929 Hitch went back to a rustic setting like that of “The Farmer’s Wife” for his final silent movie, “The Manxman.” Set on the Isle of Man (thus the title), it’s another tale of marriage, divorce and infidelity, themes he had been playing with in “Downhill” and “Easy Virtue.”

“The Manxman” is based on a novel by Sir Hall Caine, and stars Carl Brisson, previously seen in “The Ring,” as Pete, a fisherman, as well as Malcolm Keen (“The Lodger”) as Philip, a lawyer, and Anny Ondra as Kate, daughter of the local saloon’s owner. Pete is infatuated with Kate, but when he gets Philip to speak to her father on his behalf, the father throws Pete out of his home, calling him “a penniless lout.”

With Philip in tow, Pete sneaks back to Kate’s home and talks to her at her window. He says he’s going to leave the island and make his fortune, then come back for her, if she’ll wait for him. She doesn’t take him very seriously, but finally promises that she’ll be faithful. Pete asks Philip to watch Kate while he’s gone, but of course, Philip and Kate fall in love.

Hitchcock reveals Philip and Kate's growing relationship by showing entries in her diary

Philip, meanwhile, is advised by his aunt to break things off with Kate, as she is so low-born she could ruin his career. Philip finds Kate, but just as he’s about to carry out his aunt’s wishes, they receive word that Pete is dead – and Kate takes this as permission to go ahead and openly pursue her relationship with Philip. Naturally, Pete turns up a few weeks later, not only alive but also with enough money to marry Kate. There’s no way out of her promise, so marry they do.

Kate soon learns that she is pregnant, and realizes that the baby must be Philip’s. She tries to get Philip to tell Pete the truth, but neither of them can reveal their betrayal of Pete’s trust. The baby is born, and Philip goes on to become the chief judge on the island, while Kate walks out on Pete and the baby. She asks Philip to let her stay with him, but then goes back for the baby – but when Pete won’t give the baby to her, she tries to kill herself. A policeman saves her, though, and she winds up in court – in front of Philip, sitting on the bench for the first time. Pete arrives in court to speak on behalf of his estranged wife, along with her parents.

Kate starts to explain that she had been in love with another man before she was married, and her father suddenly puts two and two together, accusing Philip of betraying Pete’s friendship. Philip admits the truth, resigns his new position as judge, and slips away with Kate, looking absolutely miserably, and leaving Pete to his own misery.

Although “The Manxman” isn’t much of a picture – the story is melodramatic and predictable – it still has more going for it than Hitch’s previous few pictures. Much of it was shot on location on the Isle of Man, and it’s obvious that Hitch enjoyed the location, spotlighting the wild terrain and rough fishing village. The production got underway just a couple of weeks after the birth of Hitch’s daughter, Patricia, and Hitch’s delight at the event is reflected in the scene where Pete gives his own baby daughter a bath.

From a technical standpoint, there are also a few panning shots unlike any I’ve seen in one of Hitch’s movies before.

Still, Hitch was about to undertake a much greater technical challenge with his first sound picture, “Blackmail.” We’ll look at that picture on March 21.

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