Thursday, August 01, 2013

Movies: The Hitchcock 9

The British Film Institute recently undertook the massive project of restoring all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films. (Of the ten he made, only his second, 1927’s The Mountain Eagle, is lost.) The nine movies span and frequently combine genres, linked mainly by the director’s restless cinematic intelligence. The series is currently on tour, and recently wrapped up a run at Seattle’s SIFF Cinema. Where else would you expect your correspondent to be?

It’s a mixed bag of titles, but essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan. The thrills come from watching the director discover his voice, charting his burgeoning command of visual narrative, glimpsing the first Hitchcock blonde, his debut cameo. Adding to the experience was the performance of a live original soundtrack, making each screening a singular event.

Blackmail (1929). Czech actress Anny Ondra of the hugely expressive eyes is Alice, who slips away from her boyfriend to respond to the flirtations of an artist (a magnificently odious Cyril Ritchard). When he attempts to rape her, she kills him. Alice is still reeling from the discovery that the investigating detective is her boyfriend when a criminal who witnessed everything threatens to destroy them both unless they pay up. A masterful piece of work, stronger than Hitchcock’s more celebrated The Lodger. It already shows the director’s love of climactic set-pieces with a chase through the British Museum achieved through camera trickery, and features an unsettling ending that never would have passed muster at a U.S. studio. Hitch made a sound version simultaneously, with Ondra lip-syncing dialogue spoken by off-camera actress Joan Barry. That version closes SIFF’s tribute tonight, but having seen this gorgeous print of the silent film I’m in no hurry to watch a weaker iteration. The soundtrack was by Diminished Men, their music described as a combination of Link Wray and Ennio Morricone. Not what one typically associates with Hitchcock but their surf noir sound worked wonderfully, adding a contemporary dimension to a nearly-85-year-old film that remains plenty lively on its own.

The Farmer’s Wife (1928). Billed as a comedy but steeped in sadness. A gentleman farmer and widower watches his daughter marry and leave home. Afraid of spending the rest of his days alone, he and his devoted housekeeper draw up a list of eligible women, and the farmer goes a’-courtin’. Once romance is in the offing the stoic farmer becomes a stubborn, hapless fool, forever saying the wrong thing. The women who are his quarry are given definition, each spurning him for her own reasons. This warm and funny film, also a gentle burlesque of village life, was the find of the festival, abetted by the strongest soundtrack. Violinist Julie Baldridge and a DJ whose name I didn’t catch played in deft counterpoint, the DJ using samples to serve as motifs for the characters.

The Pleasure Garden (1925). Hitch’s first film, made when he was twenty-five, is a strange one. It begins as a backstage melodrama, with a penniless chorine arriving from the sticks only to be watched over by “poor but honest” Patsy Brand. Then it becomes a bizarre tale of Far East survival. I wish it had stayed in the theater, a proto-Showgirls. You can tell from the opening shot of chorus girls’ legs that’s where Hitchcock’s heart lies. A jumble goosed along by an inventive, multi-instrument soundtrack courtesy of Miles & Karina.

The Ring (1927). Hitch’s boxing drama was the film I was most excited about, so naturally it proved the biggest disappointment. Like many of his early efforts it’s a love triangle, about a carnival fighter signed to be the sparring partner for an up-and-coming heavyweight – only to have the champ fall for his wife. While the midway milieu feels authentic and lived-in, the boxing world (aside from the use of champagne to spritz the pugs between rounds) is never remotely believable. And there’s not enough boxing. The cello/vocal score emphasized that The Ring is a chamber piece and only made a constrained film seem even smaller.

Downhill (1927). Schoolboy honour leads to disgrace. Then-heartthrob Ivor Novello, fifteen years too old for the role, willingly besmirches his own name to save a chum’s and winds up a taxi dancer in the south of France. It’s impossible to tell how seriously to take this story when Hitchcock himself seems to be playing it for laughs. Further complicating my reaction was the soundtrack, provided by a local DJ and the one authentic misfire. The DJ wasn’t scoring the film so much as commenting on it, playing obvious yet inappropriate selections (The Police’s ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ during scenes of schoolroom romance) and banking on the audience’s associations with tracks by the Doors and Rihanna. Worse, of all the films in the series Downhill has the most opportunities for music to make an impact given its structure and the DJ squandered them all, settling for glib choices. SIFF’s programmers deserve credit for thinking out of the box, but here the music nearly overwhelmed Hitchcock’s artistry.

Champagne (1928). Screwball Hitchcock, complete with runaway heiress. Betty Balfour is the flapper who finally pushes her wealthy father to the point of feigning poverty – but that only unleashes the girl’s inner moxie. The sole surviving print is a back-up consisting of second-best shots and takes, but even B-level Hitchcock has its charms. Featuring Rosemarie’s new all-time favorite line of dialogue: “I’ve met some lively people, invented a cocktail, and bought a lot of snappy gowns!” Harpist Leslie McMichael contributed a suitably effervescent score.

The Manxman (1929). Anny Ondra again stars in yet another triangle drama set on the Isle of Man. Possibly the best-looking film of the bunch, but a one-note melodrama only occasionally enlivened by the director’s eye, and with too many instances of histrionic “silent movie acting” by the male leads. Another cello/vocal score, heavy on the keening, only underlined how frightfully intimate the action is.

Easy Virtue (1928). The restoration of this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play was struck from a 16mm print with more than fifteen minutes whittled out of it. As such it feels fragmentary, only hinting at the expansive approach to the source material. Another fine Miles & Karina score helped.

I skipped 1927’s The Lodger because I’ve already seen it, it didn’t feature live music (instead using a recording of the BFI-commissioned score), and nine movies in three days is too much even for me. SIFF continued the Hitchcock tribute with a selection of his early U.K. films. I ventured back to the Uptown for a few that I’d missed.

Murder! (1930). A famous actor (Herbert Marshall) seated on a jury reluctantly votes to find a fellow thespian guilty of the title offense, then applies the tools of his trade to clear her name. A who-done-it was not the ideal vehicle for exploring the use of sound in a movie. Hitchcock occasionally succeeds, as in a multi-party interrogation set in the wings of a theater during a play, and even pushes what the medium was then capable of; to achieve the relatively simple effect of having Marshall hear his thoughts while listening to the radio, Hitchcock played a recording of the actor’s voice while an orchestra thundered on the other side of the set’s wall. More often than not, though, the new technology results in scenes in which dialogue is barked too fast to be processed. And the plot is ridiculous. The curio does have a tip-top big top climax, though.

Number Seventeen (1932). An old dark house story. Mysterious characters – including a hobo best described as The Wire’s Dominic West meets Gollum – turn up at said structure, all lying about who they are. Hitchcock wasn’t a fan of the original play and didn’t want to direct the film, so his solution was to treat the entire enterprise as a joke, piling on the twists and keeping the pace moving. It’s a fleet hour of gimcrack nonsense culminating in a daring race between a model bus and a model train. Once I embraced its silliness, I had a fine time.

Young and Innocent (1937). By the time Hitch made this film, which he felt great affection for, he’d already become ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and Sabotage. He’d reached the point where he was capable of tossing off bon-bons like this – about a wrongly accused man on the run, a favorite theme – effortlessly. Sly, flirtatious banter, barbed send-ups of social mores, and multiple bravura shots. It’s a Hitchcock movie, fully formed, and he’d be in America soon enough. With the divinely named Nova Pilbeam.