Hitchcock Lost and Found review: in search of the Master’s MacGuffins

LostAndFound

Alfred Hitchcock may be the only British director of the silent era we don’t automatically label “underappreciated”, or “little-studied”. From Leytonstone to Los Angeles his fame is global, his influence inescapable. After the films themselves, and the TV series, the books, the biopics, the magazine articles and yet more books, there isn’t a cinephile alive who can’t pronounce with some authority on the Master of Suspense.

One subject that all Hitchcock “experts” can expand upon is the MacGuffin device – the pursuit of an elusive object that drives the narrative of a film forward, allowing the business proper to take place along the way. One way of looking at this new book by scholars Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr would be that it is a magnificent MacGuffin hunt. Hitchcock Lost & Found: the Forgotten Films goes after the grey patches on Hitchcock’s CV, the abandoned, incomplete or a loosely connected works that linger largely unwatched and unappreciated.

As well as missing films, this book tracks down the films that Hitchcock scripted, or art-directed, or otherwise assisted on, or one where he jumped into the director’s chair halfway through shooting. The discovery of a few reels of The White Shadow (Graham Cutts, 1923) in 2011 proves that a film doesn’t to be Hitchcock through-and-through to raise the heart rate. And it’s surely not too much to hope that on the trail of these MacGuffins, a hardy Hitchophile could learn a thing or two about Psycho, Rear Window and the man who made them? Not to mention that impressive string of surviving silents running from The Pleasure Garden to Blackmail or Hitchcock’s famously “lost” film, The Mountain Eagle?

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle

Well, yes, this book will tell you more about the Hitchcock you know already. A chapter on a Graham Cutts-directed film The Prude’s Fall (1925), which was scripted by Hitchcock, examines the relationship of mutual influence between the two men. The link was sustained until after Cutts’s death in 1958: his daughter Patricia has a small but memorable role in North by Northwest (1959). Happy accident or an elaborate tribute to his former mentor-collaborator? Kerzoncuf and Barr refuse to be drawn: “With Hitchcock, you never know.” But it’s a fascinating snippet, nonetheless.

And who could fail to be charmed by the analysis of a sequence in The Man from Home (George Fitzmaurice, 1922), in which the lead character’s napkin scribbles at breakfast betray the hand of Hitchcock – literally? Discussion of that film also takes in Hitchcock’s early exposure to Hollywood production techniques and efficiencies (at Famous Players-Lasky British, the Islington oupost of the US studio) and his first meeting with Alma Reville.

There’s real meat on some of these MacGuffin bones – and in fact this book contains what amounts to a silent-era scoop. The authors have tracked down more information, and clues to the whereabouts, of Number 13, an incomplete and missing comedy that Hitchcock began directing in 1922. They have also uncovered new production stills, including a glimpse of Hitchcock directing the movie on the streets of Rotherhithe.

The Blackguard at the Royal Albert Hall
Publicity material for a screening of The Blackguard at the Royal Albert Hall

That’s typical of the book’s rigorously forensic approach. There’s data here, as well as analysis; charts and tables as well as quotes and anecdotes. The irony of this exemplary clarity is that the authors so clearly hope that many of their findings will be overwritten by new findings. They label this exhaustive labour “a solid interim report”, with equal parts modesty and optimism.

But there’s much here that will stand. This welcome book is a detective story, and a reference work, a model for the study of incomplete and missing films. There is so much material here about the films Hitchcock worked on before the production of his first silent features that you’ll finish with a greater understanding of all his formative influences and artistic experiments. And the book concludes not with self-congratulation at having uncovered so much, but with a wanted list: “a ‘top ten’ of desirables”. These films are all from the silent years and to your everyday Hitchcock pub bore, baffling obscure. What’s exciting is that the book so well whets the reader’s appetite to learn more, see more of the unknown Hitchcock, that the rediscovery of Paddy the Next Best Thing (Graham Cutts, 1923) or Lily of the Alley (Henry Edwards, 1923) is as tempting a prospect as the much-anticipated revelation of a print of The Mountain Eagle (1926). In short, the MacGuffins are no longer MacGuffins at all.

Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, with a foreword by Philip French is out now, published by the University Press of Kentucky. You can order it from Amazon.co.uk for £28 (hardback) or £26.60 (Kindle edition) here.

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