News Column

9 Hitchcock silent films at the Castro

June 12, 2013

YellowBrix

June 12--The first shot of what many consider the first "real" Alfred Hitchcock film is stunning -- a young woman, her pretty face contorted with fear as she becomes the victim of a Jack the Ripper-ish mass killer; her hair bathed in an angelic light.

Hitchcock composed that extreme close-up by carefully placing the actress on a sheet of glass, spreading her hair in all directions, with a bright light shining up from under the glass. She is the first victim -- all of them blondes (yup, Hitch was obsessed even then) -- in "The Lodger" (1926).

But was "The Lodger," his third film, the first "real" Hitchcock film? The first suspense film, yes. But as the essential series "The Hitchcock 9" demonstrates, Hitchcock was a fully formed filmmaker from the first shot of his first film, 1925's comedy melodrama "The Pleasure Garden."

The series, which culls together the nine surviving feature films Hitchcock directed, shows Friday through Sunday at the Castro Theatre. It's put on by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which has its main festival in July, and will show 35mm prints of the British Film Institute's recent restoration project. Each film will be accompanied by live music.

The series will also play at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley in August.

Although only two of the nine films are suspense films, the visual inventiveness that Hitchcock possessed during this period is startling. Rather than old films, these should be considered young films -- the films of a daring young filmmaker. Hitchcock was in his 20s when he made all nine, which represent 17 percent of his 53 films that survive (alas, a 10th silent, "The Mountain Eagle," appears to be lost). "The Lodger" was considered by some critics at the time the greatest British film ever made, and Hitchcock was celebrated as an edgy up-and-comer much the way David Fincher was after "Seven" and Christopher Nolan after "Memento."

He was cocky, too. In an interview at the time, a 26-year-old Hitchcock insisted, "While the director must be relieved of routine responsibilities ... he must be able to create his pictures unhampered."

But it's not just visual inventiveness and edginess that impress. Hitchcock's humanity has long been undervalued in his movies, and some of these films are heartbreaking. That includes the love triangles in the boxing picture "The Ring," the only Hitchcock film in which he is the sole credited screenwriter, and "The Manxman," an elegant, atmospheric melodrama set in a fishing village on the Isle of Man. Even the romantic comedy "The Farmer's Wife," adapted from a stage play, has a surprising warmth.

Perhaps most affecting is the downward spiral of the rich young man (or will be, after the inheritance money comes in) in "Downhill," who finds himself manipulated by a succession of femme fatales. The matinee idol Ivor Novello, also the star of "The Lodger," plays the lead, and in both films it's easy to imagine that Novello, who we now know was a closeted gay man, brought much of himself into these tortured roles. There's even a nightmare sequence that drifts into green tint, previewing Jimmy Stewart's nightmare sequence in "Vertigo."

"The Pleasure Garden," that first film after he had served time as an assistant, opens (after Hitchcock's director's credit as a written signature, as if to announce his arrival) with a pleasing shot of chorus girls descending the stairs. Onstage, they are ogled by an elderly man in the front row. His monocle doesn't quite provide the proper view, so he switches to binoculars. The lead chorus girl -- blond of course -- stares back and makes a face.

So in his very first sequence, Hitchcock's famous voyeurism is on full display. Hitch's assistant director: Alma Reville, then his girlfriend, and soon to be his wife, a contributor to all 54 of his theatrical films. His producer: Michael Balcon, who would produce most of Hitchcock's films before he went to Hollywood in 1940. So "The Pleasure Garden" was indeed the first "real" Hitchcock picture.

By the time of "Blackmail" (which opens the festival at 8 p.m. Friday), both Hitchcock's final silent film and first sound film (he made two versions, the silent showing here is much better), Hitchcock is working at a very high level. The opening 10-minute montage of the police catching a criminal is exciting, and the killing that spins the plot into motion -- when a young woman (Anny Ondra, also the star of "The Ring," a German actress who is quite excellent) kills an artist in his studio as he tries to rape her -- is a violent, suggestive sequence that foreshadows Grace Kelly's defensive stabbing in "Dial 'M' for Murder" and even the "Psycho" shower scene.

After watching these films, it's hard to imagine Hitchcock developing in quite the same way had he started with sound movies. Silent filmmaking was an industry where the directors who told a story with as few title cards as possible -- because they are telling the story visually -- thrived. Thus, Hitchcock was encouraged to develop visually, where his famous storyboards came in handy.

As the master told Francois Truffaut in their famous interviews in the 1960s, "The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema."

The Hitchcock 9: The surviving feature-length silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, restored by the British Film Institute, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with live accompaniment. Friday-Sunday at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. (415) 621-6120. www.silentfilm.org. Also Aug. 16-31 at the Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 642-1124, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu.

G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: ajohnson@sfchronicle.com. Twitter; @BRfilmsAllen

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