By Michael T. Toole.
‘The Hitchcock 9’ – the master of suspense’s nine earliest surviving works, newly restored by the British Film Institute – begin a US tour at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on June 14-16 at the historic Castro Theater. Film International’s Michael T. Toole posed nine questions to Festival President Rob Byrne.
1. When did the Hitchcock Nine get onto your radar?
A year ago, as we got word that the BFI project was going on, we began to discuss options for programming with them and one thing led to another and then it snowballed into what will be presenting next month. I just think this is an amazing opportunity to bring these restored classics into the Bay Area.
2. Any problems of acquiring the movies for SF Silent Festival?
Not at all, we have a great relationship with the BFI, Bryony Dixon is great to work with. We’ve always had a healthy respect for each other for the hard work we bring for the preservation of classic films.
3. How much do you see the SF Silent Festival involved in film preservation? Some self-survival must be going on as it feeds into programming?
I feel we’re a centerpiece to all that. We are really involved; our presentations have a strong depth and are very educational. We also have a fellowship, which goes to a student in a preservation archive program, and we work closely with the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam and the Cinematheque in Paris. In short, we care very much about film preservation, because it serves our playlist well.
4. What was on the agenda when looking for musical accompaniment?
We have a pretty amazing selection of musicians that specialize in musical accompaniment. And the right music and the right musician make a film great. If you can find the right pairing, it is magical. We have several pianists and several organ players. We don’t really seek submissions because the field out there is so rich and what musicians present when finding for us can be real gems.
5. Napoléon last year and now Hitchcock’s classic silents, pretty high bars for the film fans and scholars, no nerves about setting the bar even higher next time out?
Absolutely not! There’s too much rich film history for us to get complacent! It’s counter intuitive to think you’ve seen it all. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I enjoy that, the [silent] era is so creative, as films haven’t fallen into formula yet. We’re constantly surprised by what’s out there, from a variety of sources, whether a national film board or someone’s private collection, you just never know. The mystery of it all is what keeps us on our toes and keeps this job continually fascinating.
6. As a non-profit, do you see yourselves offering something so unique that fundraising from both institutions and individuals will be strong enough to keep your portfolio in the black and allow you to continue with such stellar programs?
Our level of contributions is well balanced. For one, there is a very strong membership that is very important to us. Like the model of NPR [National Public Radio] members, the collective is very impressive. When people give 50 bucks, it all adds up and we appreciate everyone that’s involved. Also, art grants and sponsorship from underwriters or various organizations – say we’re doing a French film, we can get support from the French consulate here in San Francisco. Support can come in a lot of different ways and a diverse portfolio is a healthy one.
7. How have the fan, academic and media reactions been since the announcements? Both Hitchcock and silent buffs must be creaming!
You are not kidding! We knew the response was going to be strong, not just with locals in the Bay Area but from fans around the world. There is so much to savor here with a rich, cinematic experience. Visitors from abroad will especially find it worthwhile since a city as charismatic as San Francisco has so much to offer with numerous attractions. It’s just going to be a memorable presentation for those attending.
8. If you care to answer about your personal fave of the nine?
I personally love Blackmail. The film was released during the transition to sound and two versions were released, one silent and one with sound using the R.C.A. Photophone System. I recently had the opportunity to see both versions back-to-back and without question the silent version is superior. Hitchcock’s imagery, supported by the musical accompaniment, drives the suspense at times to exquisite heights. In contrast, the sound version is less compelling and I felt the suspense to be far less gripping. The dialogue is solid, and for the most part the shots and sequencing are the same, but as a viewer I didn’t feel nearly as emotionally engaged with what was transpiring on the screen.
9. Any revelations the BFI or other academics have hinted at that will be revelations for the audience, you think?
I think that the revelation will be to audience members that don’t typically come to silent performances but may be coming for their first time. What they will experience will likely shatter whatever stereotype they may have about films from the silent era. The films are well acted, beautifully photographed, tight, and suspenseful – just what you would expect from Hitchcock – and the music accompaniment is transcendent. And of course the restoration work the BFI completed on these titles was as amazing. We expect to hear a lot of “I had no idea” in the lobby after the shows.
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.