Alfred Hitchcock retrospectives are nothing new, but the mini-season being presented by the Cambridge Film Festival this year would seem to be a particularly well-curated one. Alongside a fine selection of some of this most celebrated of directors best and most famous movies (many of them showing in fresh digital prints) there’s a rare chance to catch a few of his early silent British films. I’d never seen any of these, so as I seem to be currently spending all my waking hours at the Arts Picturehouse anyway I thought it would be foolish not to take the opportunity while it was there.
The Pleasure Garden (1925) was Hitchcock’s first completed film as a director (he’d started shooting something called Number 13 a couple of years earlier, but the project was aborted when its budget collapsed) and while it’s mainly of historical interest now it is pleasing to see the great man’s confidence, imagination and black humour in evidence right from the off. The story revolves around the love lives of two chorus girls working in a London theatre, and in a motif that would recur throughout Hitchcock’s career (most notably in Strangers On A Train) they’re set up as deliberately contrasting doubles, physically very similar but with strikingly different sensibilities. The early scenes set at the theatre and the girls’ boarding house are the best, affording lots of opportunities for the director to have fun with the dancers’ pompous and moneyed patrons and admirers, but the film goes off the boil and curdles into overwrought melodrama when the action re-locates to India, where the unreliable husband of one of the girls is descending into alcoholism, infidelity and eventually homicidal madness. This section doesn’t really convince, and it’s a shame the film couldn’t have been wrapped up in a hour rather than an hour and a half, although there are some inventive visual techniques used towards the end that go some way towards selling the husband’s hallucinations. Whatever its merits it’s lovely to be able to watch the film as nature intended, in a darkened cinema with a flawless live musical accompaniment provided by Stephen Horne, who is a most formidable musician – he swaps between accordion, piano and flute seamlessly, and sometimes even manages to play the latter two instruments simultaneously!
A couple of years later saw the release of Hitchcock’s third film The Lodger (no prints survive of his second The Mountain Eagle), a suspenseful thriller set amid the London fog. This was the first film to get him widely noticed, and the first to present the themes and preoccupations that would crop up over and over again in his subsequent body of work (quite some body, by the way: another fifty films released over the next fifty years) – an innocent man on the run, fatally charming blonde women, a sinister and threatening police force and a knack for conveying claustrophobic tension that really puts the audience through the wringer. Everything’s more focussed here than in The Pleasure Garden – after an opening string of scenes establishing the press and police’s frantic reactions to the news of a serial killer on the loose in London’s theatre-land the scope of the action narrows exclusively to events in and around one particular boarding-house, where a mysterious and unnamed man turns up one night to rent a set of rooms. This lodger is played by Ivor Novello in a highly theatrical and expressionist manner, but if his performance raises a few giggles it’s not at the expense of the story or oppressive atmosphere of the film, which keeps you gripped for its full running time as the lodger becomes romantically involved with the daughter of the house, and then raises the suspicions of her jealous police inspector fiancé through his unexplained nocturnal absences. Hitchcock’s economy and style with title cards is worth mentioning too – he doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film with a dialogue inter-title unless it’s really necessary, being otherwise content for the audience to work out the characters’ meaning via context, but when he does he makes effective use of a triangular motif that first appears in the opening credits sequence as the light through a gradually closing door. As a blueprint for a career of making classy and emotion-wringing thrillers The Lodger is pretty flawless. This presentation features a new music soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney, which in general is fine, though more reminiscent of one of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock’s more later films than an authentic 1920s accompaniment. The inclusion of two songs with contemporary sounding vocals and lyrics is however a misjudgement I think – the effect is jarring and jolts you out of the film.
A spurned boyfriend who happens to be working for Scotland Yard also turns up in Blackmail, from 1929, though stylistically there’s not actually that much that this film has in common with The Lodger. This is a film that seems much more located in a real London with what might well be genuine shops, cafes and streets visible, and much of it even takes place in daylight. By now film-making technology has got more sophisticated and Hitchcock has worked out a much more fluid way of highlighting important plot points – on several occasions here the camera moves and zooms in rather than just framing the action. It’s a much talkier film too, with dozens of inter-titles deployed for the many lengthy dialogue exchanges, and it’s no surprise that this was to be Hitchcock’s last silent film (it was indeed re-tooled and released simultaneously in a sound version when it became apparent during post-production that this was the direction cinema was heading). Dramatically it’s slightly mis-shapen with a prologue dealing with the arrest of a felon giving way to a slightly too long section that’s essentially a comedy of manners before the real business of the film becomes clear: unsurprisingly, there’s a killing, followed by a tension-filled cover-up and some beautifully handled domestic scenes in which the lead characters are tortured by the ominous threat of discovery. It’s not a million miles from Psycho, and the working-class London milieu would be revisited much much later in the also not dissimilar Frenzy. A chase through the British museum provides a suitably exciting climax (is the first time an established landmark provided the setting for an action-filled denouement? King Kong didn’t come out until four years later). Once again, the Arts Picturehouse went to the trouble of engaging a real live musician to provide the soundtrack, this time in the person of John Sweeney on the piano, and very able he was too, fitting the music adeptly to events on screen.
All three of these films were presented in prints that were in remarkably good shape, with the first two being tinted blue and yellow to indicate exterior and interior scenes. Blackmail, in particular, looked well-nigh pristine. A few months ago I posted about my surprise at how enjoyable silent cinema can be if seen under the right conditions, and I’m very pleased to have had the chance to fill some of the gaps on my Hitchcock checklist. Let’s hope the Arts makes a habit of this kind of thing.