By Michael T. Toole.
“The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema.” (Alfred Hitchcock)
It’s not that I ever lost appreciation for Hitchcock, but somehow watching his embryonic work, I savored again the beauty and ease that he conveyed his narratives, with images over dialogue. The result is not only fluid, cinematic, but the connection the audience gets by witnessing the joy of creative effort.
The British Film Institute began its stateside national tour of “The Hitchcock 9,” (a program of Alfred Hitchcock’s nine earliest surviving silents in new 35mm prints) with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June. The SFSFF returned the complement with a slick, full out presentation. Held at the baroque, nearly century old Castro Theater, the lively mix of film scholars, silent film aficionados, Hitchcock fans (“Hitchies” as I was told they called themselves), and the casually curious who thought it would be an artful weekend to catch a film or two, meant nearly all were going to be satisfied to some extent – always a positive for a retrospective.
Personally, the disarming pleasure of watching the silents reminded me the best of studying Hitchcock in Film School. Lessons that were deceptive and contextual, that I took for granted from Hitchcock. Lessons that I benefit from in my own works as a filmmaker.
Not all nine films were of equal quality. One suffered from structural problems in the plot (Downhill ) and one had overly broad acting (Easy Virtue  – and don’t say this latter criticism belongs to the era, there are too many galvanizing, contemporary-feeling performances from that “era” to prove otherwise). But on the whole, it was a sublime, engaging experience. Please indulge me; I’d like to share with you what grabbed me.
1) Hitchcock really deserves to be an adjective – Hitchcockian. There is an astonishing visual élan to his work (feel free to enjoy the lucid opening shot of Champagne; or the monocle shot in Easy Virtue that places the audience clearly with the eyes of a presiding judge). There are his unifying themes, such as the wrongly accused hunted man (The Lodger  was a forerunner for everything from The 39 Steps , Saboteur  to, yes… The Wrong Man  and North By Northwest ). His plots laced with strong sexual underpinnings (clearly a propeller already in Blackmail ) and the playful brio of his cameo appearances. These are just a few of many points Hitchcock followers can speak of on fan sites all day long, and although we simply don’t have the space to go over them all, it makes you understand that so many noted directors (Françoise Truffaut, Brian De Palma to name but two) have singled out his influence as incalculable and reminded us of how much of the syntax of film suspense is due to him. Also, it’s impossible to overstate his training at the UFA Studios in Germany, where Hitchcock cut his teeth in his industry. A fan of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the stylish aspects of German Expressionism are studded on his early works. All one has to do is look at the baroque, nightmarish staircase in Murnau’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and you’ll see the origins of Hitchcock’s sharp use to create verticality and anxiety with his top, depth of field shots in The Lodger.
2) His Whimsical Moments. When people think of something light hearted or even whimsical, Hitchcock does not come to mind immediately. Rene Clair, yes, but not Hitchcock and that’s a shame, because it prevents many people from seeking out some madly underrated titles. The Farmer’s Wife (1928) is a rural comedy wonderfully poised and paced. Champagne is a sparkling farce on entitlement and riches. Comic touches alleviate dark chase scenes in his classic English thrillers The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Later works such as the screwball romantic comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) had charismatic leads in Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, and who can forget the dark droll wit of The Trouble With Harry (1955)? Face it, the man had versatility and he has the work to back it up. Catch these early silents and be disarmed with the vitality within.
3) His Actors Performed Like a Loyal Troupe. No doubt many detractors love to quote his “actors are cattle” or the variation “actors should be treated like cattle” when Hitchcock’s name comes up, but that doesn’t undermine the impressive performances of his actors, that, when one sees them perform in the context of this program, were truly charismatic and versatile. Carl Brisson (The Ring  and The Manxman  is a stalwart leading man who can convey hurt without resorting to sentiment. Lilian Hall Davis (The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife) is utterly convincing as the fairground girl whose values and loyalty are tempered once she discovers the material world, and in her performance as the housekeeper who longs for the farmer she serves, she is sweet and believable, but never treacly. Ian Hunter (The Ring, Easy Virtue, Downhill), who had a distinguished career later in Hollywood as a dependable, sartorial character actor, can be enjoyed here in fine (if broad) villainy or a dashing lead. And Ivor Novello (The Lodger and Downhill) is in turns, suitably tortured for the former and appropriately guileless in the latter. I could go on, but you get the point. Whatever his method, well-delivered performances from an array of players were a consistently impressive feat.
Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. His short films can be seen here.