watching all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in order

Film As I may have mentioned in that slightly odd post from the other day (you know the one) I’ve begun watching all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films in order beginning with the early British silents. As a student of film, the director’s work has of course always been on my radar but this feels like the ultimate right of passage and a chance to watch a portion of the history of cinema through the gaze of one man and the prism of a single genre. With any luck, by the end, I’ll be ready to watch Mel Brooks’s spoof High Anxiety and understand some of the jokes.

In the past couple of days I’ve worked my way through those silents through some bog standard public domain copies mostly from this compilation. I know there are better transfers available, but seeing them with the crackle and pop, frame jump and dodgy intertitles has felt more authentic somehow, the miracle of their survival as much a part of the experience as Hitch’s work itself. Which is something of a surprise for someone who is usually so meticulous about wanting to see a film in the best circumstances. What follows are some first impressions or an inadequate survey which fails to capture in any great detail this fascinating experience.

His first complete film (at least in production terms), The Pleasure Garden, is essentially Showgirls without the rampant sexuality and subtle performances. It’s about the divergent lives of two friends working at the dancehall in London; one becomes a star, the other marries a prince and tragedy ensues. Though it opens well with the hilarious if uncomfortable image of an old lascivious bore in a threatre audience gazing at the dancing ladies though an eyeglass, and it is charming in that way that most silent films are, the oblique characterisation and repetitious action are difficult to take even for an hour. Still, there’s some funny business with a dog and a magical moment with a ghost using some old school theatre trickery.

His next film, The Mountain Eagle is lost.

The Lodger is usually considered to be the forerunner of his later career as a suspense director and clearly Hitch’s best film of the era. The aforementioned lodger moves into a house and acts a bit strangely when a killer is on the loose in old London town. All circumstantial evidence points to him – is he guilty? Artistically a more accomplished work than The Pleasure Gardens, the editing here is more fluid than I expect of the period and as a pupil of the German school he understand how to light the sinister face of lead actor Ivor Novello (a good job too because at least at this point he was a horrible actor). There’s also a documentary quality to the scenes set in the streets, which are seething with fear as the violence escalates. Surprisingly humorous too – both in the pratfalls of the landlord and the bumbling about of some of the cops – and the conclusion is not what you’d think it might be – the message is rather deeper.

As with most of his films from the silent era, Downhill doesn't really have much in common with his later work in narrative terms.  The BFI's synopsis suggests its "an early variation on his fabled ‘wrong man’ plot" but in all of the later examples, it's the spark for a propulsive suspense narrative whereas this is more of a morality or cautionary tale - it's Novello's choice not to reveal the truth.  But it is an excellent example of episodic storytelling in which a character finds themselves in a series of increasingly difficult situations, in this case through pride and fear, betraying its stage origins.  It was originally a west end play written by Novello himself and the actress Constance Collier.

Nevertheless Hitchcock's visual storytelling agility shines through.  One famous scene begins with Novello in a tux but as the camera pulls backwards he's revealed to be a waiter in a cafe, no, no, he's a thief, no no, he's actually standing on a stage set and he's part of the chorus.  The director has taken the audience's expectations of what they're seeing and turns it on his head, breaking our suspension of disbelief before putting is back together again.  He also repeats the symbolic motif of having Novello's character descend, down steps in school, an underground escalator (see above) and a lift after each emotional setback, literally going "down hill" only going up when he emerges into the light from the cargo hold of a ship. [Watched 4th May 2020]

Every director seems to make a boxing film at some point and Hitch’s is The Ring, in which two prizefighters literally come to blows over the love of a woman. Scorsese must have reviewed this before going into Raging Bull; some of the smoky shots of the boxers in close-up and punches landing are almost exactly replicated in one of the fight sequences there. The psychology here is a bit more simplistic -- most of these early films feature some kind of love triangle and in none of them is there a suggestion that the woman could tell both of them to give over and make her own way in the world. It’s a reminder of the time in which they were made – that and in the case of The Ring, the sudden use of the n-word in one of the captions.

There essentially seem to be two kinds of silent films – those whose story could only be told in the medium and those that are essentially talkies with the sound turned off in which you can almost see the actors shouting, desperate for the dialogue to be heard. Since it's based on Noel Coward's play, Easy Virtue can't help for follow the second pattern. The wife of a drunken brute is scorned by society after an affair with an artist and subsequent divorce, only to find love again on the French Riviera. Hitch does his best to replace Coward’s dialogue, with close-ups and crossfades to signal the character’s thought processes and in the court sequences we see the notes of a reporter as she jots down what’s being said. Already the director is introducing quite complex narrative ideas; the conclusion visually mirrors the opening in such a way that we can see the effect the affair has had on the woman, whose life is permanently in shadow.

Someone should remake The Farmer’s Wife now, with David Morrissey as the widower searching for a new wife and Rebecca Hall as the maid who’s secretly in love with him. It’s the first of Hitch’s out and out comedies, somewhat akin to farce in this case and loads of fun. The farmer makes a list of the local potentials and works his way through it, asking each of them to marry him and crossing them off the list when they don’t offer him the reaction he's expecting. Also based on a play, by Eden Philpotts (the novelist who wrote a series of books about Dartmoor), it manages to entertain through proper screwball wit (plenty of caption cards) and delightful physical comedy which has a whiff of the seaside postcard about it.

The same can’t be said about Champagne, which the director himself largely disowned later in life -- he told Truffaut that "The film had no story to tell". He’s right. It's about a 1920s Paris Hilton style heiress who's father apparently loses all of his money on the stock market is forced to get a job as a flower girl in a night club, whilst maintaining the attentions of two potential husbands and there's not much else to it, yet it meanders on and on episodically without doing much to engage the audience's sympathy. The performances have the kind of exaggerated facial and physical gestures people expect from silent films which makes it seem even more dated than The Pleasure Garden. I think someone even twirls their moustache. I can only guess that the director was attempting a kind of satire on both the ingredients of contemporary cinema and the repellently rich at the time of the depression, but doesn't manage either. One of those rare occasions when the poster is better than the film.

Manx melodrama The Manxman was Hitch's final silent (not including the original cut of Blackmail). Magnificently shot in Cornwall (years before the Isle of Man became a tax-haven and pleasant to filmmakers) it’s another love triangle, this time as life longfriends – a fisherman and a lawyer -- both fall for a local barmaid and her promising to marry the former even though she subsequently decides she's in love with the latter. They’re calling this kind of thing a bromance these days; the lawyer doesn’t want to betray his friend even though it makes the girl suicidal. It’s really worth seeing just for the photography; the exteriors are tremendously scenic – especially the opening as the catch is brought into harbour, the sea filled with boats.

Hitch mastered the silent medium just as it was going out of fashion.


Miss America said...

I went through a phase last summer where I wanted to watch nothing but Hitchcock movies. My favourite so far is 'Dial M', or perhaps 'Stage Fright', however, no matter how hard I try, I can't get through the one movie that everyone always references. I keep falling asleep. Maybe it's that long train journey and the rocking...North by Northwest still eludes me, and always has.

Mike said...

A good time to watch Hitchcock as there a number of decent sets of his early years floating around - The Early Hitchcock Collection and The British Years being two handsome sets I bought recently. I'm sure you have got these anyway and a comment on his 1930s British output is to follow ;)

As for North by Northwest, surely one of the best films of all time!