July 21--The Master of Suspense is back ... in a way you may not have seen him before.
A lot of us know British-born filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) for his brilliant mid- and late-career thrillers: "Psycho," "Rear Window," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest" and so many more. But next week at the Uptown, the Seattle International Film Festival presents an opportunity to experience Hitch as a young filmmaker. "The Hitchcock 9" is a collection of nine full-length British silent films, all directed by Hitchcock between 1925 and 1929 and screening July 26-28; "Hitchcock U.K. Masterpieces," featuring a selection of his 1930s films up until his departure for Hollywood in 1939, screens the following weekend.
Of particular interest is "The Hitchcock 9," which is the result of a lengthy restoration project by the British Film Institute. With the exception of "The Lodger" (a 1927 foggy-night thriller that Hitch himself called "the first Hitchcock movie"), most of these films have rarely been seen in the U.S., and most were in very poor condition prior to the restoration. One Hitchcock silent film ("The Mountain Eagle," partially shot in Austria) was already lost; others existed only in damaged prints or partial negatives.
A rescue mission
Several years ago, looking ahead to London events of 2012 (the Summer Olympics and the Queen's Diamond Jubilee), the British Film Institute "was asked to think about doing something celebratory," said Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film for the BFI National Archive. "We thought, who is our greatest icon and our greatest filmmaker, and of course Hitchcock springs immediately to mind." The silent films, she said, "had never been properly restored"; now came an opportunity to introduce them to a new generation.
Dixon noted that Hitchcock, prior to directing his first feature ("The Pleasure Garden," 1925), was already an experienced filmmaker who had worked "every single job on the studio floor" -- title writer, screenwriter, assistant director. But he hadn't yet settled on a trademark. Not every film in "The Hitchcock 9" is a thriller; Hitch, in his early years, explored other genres: comedy ("The Farmer's Wife"), melodrama ("The Ring," "Downhill"), romance ("Champagne"). (He would later combine all of these with suspense to create his own genre: "Hitchcockian.")
Part of the pleasure of watching these early films is seeing glimpses -- a shot, a character, an expression -- of something we know well from his later work. A dream sequence in "Downhill" reminds us of one decades later in "Vertigo"; a knife sparkling in "Blackmail" reminds us of Norman Bates' weapon in "Psycho." And the trademark Hitchcock cameos turn up in a few of these films; most amusingly in the director's interaction with a meddling child on a London subway in "Blackmail."
Though the restorations are a remarkable achievement ("Blackmail," for example, looks crisply stunning), the BFI wasn't always able to create a pristine new version. In some cases, crucial materials were lacking. "Champagne," for one, had to be pieced together with second-negative footage. At that time in British filmmaking, Dixon explained, studios created two negatives by shooting each scene twice -- since there was only one camera. The second shots, destined for the number two negative, were used as backup, "often used as insurance material in case something dreadful happened, or used in foreign prints," said Dixon. The existing negative for "Champagne" was in good condition, but the BFI staff thought the filmmaking seemed a little off; sure enough, they found the words "2nd negative" scrawled on the film leader.
And "Easy Virtue," an adaptation of the No l Coward play, existed only in a "horrible" abridged 16mm print -- "no 35mm print, no negatives, nothing." The BFI cleaned up the dirt and damage and remade the intertitles, but much of the film remains missing.
Other films, in better condition, brought more opportunity to showcase the restoration work. For several films, most notably "The Lodger" and "Downhill," the BFI was able to reapply the films' original tinting scheme. In the '20s film industry, films were commonly tinted, said Dixon. "It's not supposed to be natural color -- it's there to express a lighting effect, or a mood or emotion." (Note the bilious green of the dream sequence in "Downhill.") Tinting began to disappear from films in the late '20s, as sound emerged.
With the exception of "The Lodger," which arrives with a prerecorded new soundtrack composed by Nitin Sawhney and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, all of the "Hitchcock 9" will be shown as they were originally intended: with live musical accompaniment. Local musicians will present an original soundtrack at each screening: string/accordion duo Miles & Karina will accompany "The Pleasure Garden" and "Easy Virtue"; cellist Lori Goldston will play for "The Manxman" and "The Ring"; harpist Leslie McMichael will accompany "Champagne"; violinist Julie Baldridge will play for "The Farmer's Wife"; Diminished Men will accompany "Blackmail," and DJ James Whetzel will create a score for "Downhill."
Goldston, who's just released her first solo album of film scores, has much experience accompanying silent films; she's been doing so for more than 20 years, originally with the Black Cat Orchestra. A live film score, she said last week, is a combination of improvisation and pre-composition. She'll study the film -- "ideally I'd watch it every day for a week" -- and creates a sort of road map in advance, thinking about the film's atmosphere ("The Manxman," for example, set on an island, has "a very watery atmosphere" which the music will reflect) and its narrative arc.
But she likes to leave room for inspiration -- "allowing me to really be in the moment with the film, and really watch the film rather than just reading notes off a page and being stuck in a tempo or stuck in something predetermined. It's nice to give it a lot of space to breathe. At the same time, not to make it too abstract, and kind of accessible. So I try to ride that line."
For Dave Keenan, the Miles of Miles & Karina (Nova Devonie), it's likewise about finding a balance. The duo has toured North America with their score to the 1926 animated silent film "The Adventures of Prince Achmed"; this will be their second foray into film music. They're composing some themes for the film, which they'll write out for different film cues, "and then we'll be improvising within those melodic shapes and themes."
The two play a number of different instruments, but for "The Pleasure Garden" and "Easy Virtue" will be focusing on ukulele ("for that kind of ragtime '20s music"), banjo, accordion, slide whistle and kazoo. Unlike most concert performances, where their connection is with the audience, film accompanists must perform facing the screen. "The way we tend to think about music for film, it shouldn't just wash over the movie, it should complement the moods and activities happening. We have to watch for those cues in order to make everything work out right."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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