Alfred Hitchcock, one of the first directors to establish his personality as a brand, has always been a part of the zeitgeist. The most famous director is having a very good year.
It was just last August that his 1958 film “Vertigo” displaced “Citizen Kane” at the pinnacle of the every-ten-year list of the greatest movies ever made conducted by the venerable British magazine “Sight and Sound.” And his personal life — his fetish for the cool blonde whose refined appearance masks vivid sexuality — inspired two movies, HBO’s “The Girl,” with Toby Jones as the master and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, and “Hitchcock,” starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as a reimagined Alma Hitchcock, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. (At least if you believe that, as long as you spell his name right, it’s good publicity. Otherwise we might not count “The Girl” and “Hitchcock” in the plus column.)
Certainly the carefully-orchestrated release of his nine surviving silent films, freshly restored by the British Film Institute National Archive, is burnishing his already polished reputation. (“The Mountain Eagle,” his second film, made in 1926, is considered to be a lost film. We eagerly await its rediscovery in some overlooked closet or basement.) Cinephiles around the world are gathering to watch the movies, made between 1925 and 1929, in venues from coast to coast.
The first United States performances were held in San Francisco under the auspices of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, at the venerable 1922 movie palace the Castro, on June 14, 15, and 16th. Following the Silent Film Festival’s most excellent tradition, the movies were shown with live musical accompaniment, ranging from solo piano to the five-member Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. UPDATE: Next up: The Los Angeles County Museum starts the series Thursday, June 27, running through July 13.
At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, artistic director Anita Monga introduced the opening-night film, “Blackmail” (perversely the last of the Hitchcock 9, chronologically), by saying that she had asked to be a presenter of the series from the very first moment she heard of the project, over three years ago. The 1929 “Blackmail” is one of the most classically Hitchcockian of the silents in its criminal setting, motifs, and use of suspense — not to mention the first use of a chase sequence around a famous location, in this instance the British Museum. (“Blackmail” also exists in a part-talkie version, in which, bizarrely, the Czech actress Anny Ondra mouthed words voiced just off-camera by the American actress Joan Barry.) The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (piano, clarinet, cello, trumpet, and violin) provided a rousing score that complemented the perfect little film and galvanized the capacity crowd. It’s a movie that I’ve seen several times before, but the BFI’s glowing restoration (from the original negative) was a revelation.
Saturday’s marathon showcased the diversity of Hitchcock’s early work, when he was finding his way and working in many different genres before finding and establishing his niche. “Champagne” (1928), starring the somewhat stolid though beloved British star Betty Balfour, is a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale of a madcap heiress who is forced to become a nightclub employee when her fortune disappears. The solo piano accompaniment was provided by Judith Rosenberg, the principal pianist for the Pacific Film Archive (where she’ll be accompanying the Hitchcock 9 when they unspool there from August 16 to August 31).
The exquisitely tinted and toned “Downhill” (1927) is based on a play by its popular leading man Ivor Novello, another, more sordid riches-to-rags story, of a public-school lad whose life is ruined when when he is falsely accused by a predatory shopgirl of impregnating her and his honor will not allow him to name the true father. The brilliant word-traveling British-based musician Stephen Horne created a fluid, vivid score that featured him on accordion, flute, and glockenspiel in addition to the piano (which he uses as a percussion instrument as well).
“The Ring” (1927), Hitchcock’s third film that year (after “Downhill” and “Easy Virtue”) is the filmmaker’s sole original screenplay credit (he frequently worked with other writers, notably the unsung Eliot Stannard, credited on all the other Hitchcock silents). It’s a triangle love story in a boxing setting, in which Lillian Hall-Davis is torn between her husband, the hunky Danish star Carl Brisson, and fellow boxer Ian Hunter. An intermission was created midway through the film, in order to allow the hard-working Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra a breather, during which witty slides informed the audience just how the Orchestra had assembled its score from period silent film music, including creating leitmotifs and themes for the main characters.
Informative and amusing slideshows in-between its screenings, for the stalwarts who remain in their seats all day long, are a beloved feature of the elegantly-produced San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Other nice touches are beautifully illustrated and edited free keepsake program books, and tempting books on sale, this time a all-Hitchcock array, including such specialist titles as “Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics,” and a $39.95 paperback entitled “Alfred Hitchcock’s Silent Films.” Somehow I managed to keep my credit card in my wallet.
The final film of the day was the rarely-seen “The Manxman” (1929), another love triangle featuring the riveting Carl Brisson, who the early Hitchcock blonde Anny Ondra bizarrely dumps in favor of the rather lumpy Malcolm Keen (but the heart has its reasons). Its strong suit is its gorgeous (and gorgeously photographed) natural settings — supposedly the Isle of Man, but actually shot in Cornwall. Stephen Horne composed an original score for five musicians (including violin, oboe, and percussion), but in the event, Anita Monga gaily told us, her budget permitted her to employ only two — so Horne played the piano, accordion, and flute, and harpist Diana Rowan played the Celtic harp.
After such an exhilarating day of movies, it was a wrench not to be able to return for Sunday’s equally alluring lineup of “The Farmer’s Wife,” “Easy Virtue,” “The Pleasure Garden,” and “The Lodger,” but I was somewhat mollified by the fact that I can catch up with them at the Pacific Film Archive’s August presentations — not to mention eventually acquire the boxed set of the Hitchcock 9, with different musical accompaniment, when the BFI makes it available.
And there’s also the main presentation of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to look forward to next month, from July 18 to 21st, also at the Castro Theatre, featuring an eclectic program of more than a dozen films, including Louise Brooks in “Prix de Beaute,” Ozu’s “Tokyo Chorus,” Feyder’s “Gribiche,” Pabst’s “Joyless Street,” and Harold Lloyd in “Safety Last.”