The BFI’s package of nine newly restored silent films by Alfred Hitchcock began its US tour at the recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and will shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinematek from July 29 through July 3, before moving on to other venues and, eventually, home video. For the most part, these are movies that have been seen, if at all, in variously compromised public domain editions in the US, but the BFI, backed by a massive, public fund-raising campaign linked to the 2012 London Olympics, has greatly improved on the standard versions by collating the best material from collections around the world.
Hitchcock’s first completed feature, “The Pleasure Garden” (1925), seems much more accomplished now that 20 minutes of footage has been added to the old Rohauer print; “The Manxman” (1929) looks stunning in this new version taken from the original nitrate negative (the only camera negative that appears to survive on any of Hitchcock’s silents). Color tints have been restored to “The Lodger” (1926), and a discreet digital touch-up has been applied to everything else. The only film that still looks dodgy is “Easy Virtue” (1927), which seems to survive only in 16-millimeter “show-at-home” prints.
I have an overview of the series here, in the New York Times. I suspect that a lot of casual film buffs who attend the series expecting to see his trademark thrillers are going to be disappointed by everything apart from “The Lodger” and “Blackmail” (1929), but the interest for the hardcore Hitchcockian the interest of these films lies precisely in how the demonstrate the range of material that Hitchcock explored, before he settled on the thriller as the best vehicle for the themes he wanted to explore and the manner in which he wanted to explore them. The genres covered here range from schoolboy misadventures (the 1927 “Downhill,” which seemed to me immeasurably richer than I remembered it from my last viewing several decades ago) to tony stage dramas (“Easy Virtue” is based on a West End hit by Noel Coward). Stylistically, the films reflect the well-documented influence of Murnau and Lang (“The Lodger”), but suggest that Hitchcock, an early and dedicated member of the seminal London Film Society, was also playing close attention to the Soviet montage boys (“The Lodger” opens with a city symphony sequence that seems to anticipate “Man with a Movie Camera”) and even the French Impressionists (the poetic realism of “The Manxman” would seem to owe something to Jean Epstein’s 1923 “Coeur Fidele”).
And yet, for all their variations, the films of the “Hitchcock 9” are firmly centered on the director’s characteristic themes and personal imagery. “The Pleasure Garden,” for example, opens with a swirl of Hitchcock motifs — spirals and staircases, showgirls and spyglasses — while “Champagne” (1928, and the subject of the French poster reproduced above) offers, on an entirely differently level, the popular British comedienne Betty Balfour as an early draft of Tippi Hedren’s destructively headstrong heiress in “The Birds.” Thrillers or not, these films are the foundations of Hitchcock’s art — one of the richest bodies of work of the 20th century.
Plus, at no extra charge, a look at Ernst Lubtisch’s “The Merry Widow.”