Alfred Hitchcock was born in the far east of London, in Leytonstone. So far east in fact, that it was Essex then, I think. But Hitch is still one of London’s most famous film directors, and it is fitting that one of his most famous films to be both set and filmed in the capital will be screening in his home borough of Waltham Forest this summer. The Barbican are showing the silent version of Blackmail, with Neil Brand’s tremendous score played by the Forest Philharmonic, at the Assembly Hall in Walthamstow, London E17. Be there or find yourself kicking your heels in a West End Lyon’s Corner House, rejected and alone.
Blackmail is a classic crime thriller, laden with Hitchcock’s signature suspense tricks, about a nice young girl (Anny Ondra) who commits a violent act one night in dire circumstances, and has to live with the consequences. Famously shot as both a silent and sound film, Blackmail reveals Hitchcock as a confident director revelling in the themes of murder and guilt that would become his home turf. In classic Hitchcock style, Blackmail also climaxes with a setpiece at a famous landmark – one slightly closer to home than Mount Rushmore. Every film fan in London should see this film, and the best way to see it is like this, with an orchestra and Brand’s wonderful music.
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville are back in the cinemas this weekend, courtesy of Sacha Gervasi’s controversial Hitchcock, which imagines what may have gone into the making of the notorious Psycho.
Who leered at who during the filming of the shower scene is not the biggest mystery in Hitchcock’s career, however. For anyone who enjoyed this summer’s programme of silent Hitchcock films, the big question is: where is The Mountain Eagle (1926)?
Though The Mountain Eagle was only Hitch’s second film, the reviews were unenthusiastic and he described it himself as “a very bad movie”, he made it just before he directed The Lodger, so there really is a chance that it’s not half bad. It starred Malcolm Keen with American vamp Nita Naldi and the plot focused on a school teacher and a hermit in rural Kentucky:
Pettigrew, a shop-keeper in a mountain town of Kentucky, falls in love with the teacher, Beatrice. The girl doesn’t consider him as a lover, so he gets angry and accuses her of molesting his son Edward who has a mental illness. The girl marries the hermit, Fear O’God Fulton in order to calm the people’s anger and day by day she falls in love with her husband and a child is born. Pettigrew hides Edward and charges the hermit with his son’s murder. Fear O’God is imprisoned but he escapes and takes refuge in the mountain with his wife and son. (From Hitchcock Wiki)
Shades of The Birds maybe? Perhaps that’s just me.
By Hitch’s own account, he did not get along with Naldi at all well:
First we quarrelled about her nails. They came down from half an inch beyond the finger to a quarter. We had another discussion. They came down to an eighth. Another discussion and they were all right. The heels came down layer by layer. The makeup was altered shade by shade. The hair was changed curl by curl.
A few weeks later, when Alma and I were married, we went to Paris for our honeymoon and spent the first day of it with Nita. But that is another story — and one I’m not going to tell.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that no, I have not stumbled across The Mountain Eagle, but I did discover this rather chilling but elegant silent short on Vimeo. It’s called The Projectionist, it was written and directed by film student Jamie Thraves last year and it features a piano score by Costas Fotopoulos – plus it is loosely inspired by the mystery of The Mountain Eagle.
Enjoy – and keep your eyes peeled.
Visit The Space for a collection of videos on Hitchock’s silent years, including featurettes on The Pleasure Garden and Matthew Sweet and Henry K Miller talking about “Hitchcock at the Picture Palace”
Blackmail, perhaps the greatest British silent film, was the work of a young director firing on all cylinders. As well as this masterful silent movie, Hitchcock made an acclaimed and pioneering talkie version, Britain’s first. It’s the silent Blackmail that concerns us, though, and it’s a fitting finale to Hitch’s silent years.
Anny Ondra is back, as Alice White, a young woman who rows with her dull policeman boyfriend in a Lyon’s Cornerhouse and wanders off with a dashing artist instead. When the dauber tries to take advantage of her in his studio, Alice defends herself, lethally, with a breadknife …
Here, as in The Lodger, Hitchcock’s London is superbly seedy. The opening scene of Blackmail shows the arrest of a shifty crim, holed up in bed in a tenement flat, and from the gossip who torments our heroine in her parents’s shop, to the blackmailer himself, everyone in the city seems to take an unnaturally keen interest in murder.
The way that Blackmail muddies a police procedural thriller with sex, moral compromise and guilt (and splashes of earthy humour) is a classic Hitchcock manoeuvre. Alfred was definitely hitting his stride here. However, one reason that Blackmail feels so much like the Hitchcock thrillers we know and love is that Charles Bennett, who wrote the play it is based on, went on to collaborate with Hitchcock on films from The 39 Steps to The Man Who Knew Too Much. Together, they created much that we think of as classic Hitchcock.
The question is, with a celebrated sound version available, why bother with the silent Blackmail? Of course, you don’t need to choose – they both have moments to recommend them. The finale at the British Museum (future shades of North by Northwest) is one of those great Hitchcock sequences that was conceived, and succeeds, visually. Sound adds nothing. Elsewhere, Hitchcock uses the freedom of a microphone-free set to set up some more experimental camera shots, where the sound film is a little more constrained. You won’t want to miss the famous “knife” sequence in the talkie Blackmail, but the silent version is unsettlingly creepy in its own way. I’d also like to champion Anny Ondra’s silent performance here – Joan Barry’s dubbed RP accent is just bizarre.
Grocer’s daughter Alice White kills a man in self-defence when he tries to sexually assault her. Her policeman boyfriend covers up for her, but she has been spotted leaving the scene by a petty criminal who tries to blackmail her. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Here’s the pivotal, and supremely Hitchcockian, murder scene. With Neil Brand’s score to boot.
Watch out for: That gruesome painting of a jester.
Blackmail (both versions) screens this summer as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season. More information here. There’s also a gala performance featuring Neil Brand’s live score at the British Museum on 6 July.
Often referred to as Hitchcock’s final silent, because Blackmail was also shot as a sound film, The Manxman seems to be growing steadily in popularity, and with good reason. It’s a romance, yes, another Stannard adaptation of a hit novel by Hall Caine in fact, and I’m far fonder of it than Hitchcock professed himself to be. “It was a very banal picture,” he told Truffaut. “It was not a Hitchcock movie.”
Well, that’s his opinion. The Manxman lays out a love triangle, with Anny Ondra (Kate), Carl Brisson (Pete) and Malcolm Keen (Philip) at each corner. Poor Brisson gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop again, when his best friend takes care of his girl while he is away at sea. The setting is a fishing village on the Isle of Man. Pete is a fisherman, but Philip, who wants to become a judge like his father and his father’s father, may have more to lose by the liaison than his friend does.
Anny Ondra is fantastic here: mesmerising and sensual. One moment a flirtatious femme fatale; the next a confused young woman. It’s a wonderful rehearsal for the performance she gives in Hitchcock’s next film, Blackmail. She’s gorgeous too, but perhaps not as gorgeous as the stunning coastal scenery. The landscape towers over, and frames the lovers, as if to say they’re trapped by their destiny, and by the place they come from, both. It’s not really the Isle of Man, by the way, but Cornwall.
While this isn’t Hitchcock’s final silent film, it’s worth taking a moment to enjoy, and appreciate his virtuoso work here. The Manxman remains a testament to Hitchcock’s achievements in silent film-making, and it’s no wonder that decades later he would still refer disdainfully to “photographs of people talking”.
In a small Isle of Man fishing community, two men, friends since childhood, find themselves in love with the same woman. Rejected by the girl’s father, Pete leaves to find his fortune in Africa, and Philip sees his chance with Kate. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Sometimes good news feels like bad news, especially when there’s a dark blot on the horizon.
Watch out for: Windows. And how much they can hide.
With The Farmer’s WifeHitchcock proved that he could excel at comedy, but Champagne (1928) unhappily revealed that froth was far from safe territory for the director. The critics were hardly impressed, with Close-Up crowing about: “champagne that had been left out in the rain all night”. Looking back, Hitchcock tended to agree, saying: “That was probably the lowest ebb of my output.”
Hitchcock wasn’t happy at the time either, no fan of the source novel and uncertain how to proceed. What Champagne does have is a promising cast: Betty Balfour (the “British Mary Pickford”) takes the lead role and one of Hitchcock’s favourite character actors, Gordon Harker, plays her millionaire father. Balfour, who had made her name playing cockney sweetheart Squibs, does her best, but her likable screen persona fares much better in the second half of the film, when her character (The Girl) develops a touch more vulnerability and sweetness.
In the earlier stages of the film, The Girl is a spoiled, grandstanding heiress, but a combination of Balfour’s hard-to-repress charm and Hitchcock’s steely gaze means she’s very hard to hate. She invokes her father’s displeasure by commandeering a plane to catch up with her boyfriend’s cruise liner. For this, he wants to teach her a lesson. But Hitchcock gets in first, shooting Balfour triumphant in a ballgown after her dramatic entrance, but with her face covered in soot from the flight. I was rooting for her from that moment on. Further humiliations are in store, but it’s a blessed relief when she reaches the point of redemption.
That said, there are some hugely enjoyable glimpses of Hitchcock on top form here: including a cynical street robbery (shades of a similar scene in The Pleasure Garden, maybe even a nod to Graham Cutts), and some bold subjective camerawork.
Champagne is also of considerable interest as film that is utterly of its own time – a cocktail-swigging flapper, her father with his fortunes balanced precariously on Wall Street, her straitlaced fiance with his old-fashioned views – and a reflection of our own. Mira Calix, who will be scoring the film for its gala screening later this year, points out that Champagne attacks a continuing 21st-century obsesssion with celebrities who, just like The Girl, behave atrociously and are famous off the back of their parents’ success. It also, she hopes, will chime with supporters of the Occupy movement: a front-row seat to watch the 1%ers behaving badly and meeting their icky comeuppance.
A minor work, but not without its charms, Champagne maybe largely a waste of Balfour’s talents, but it’s a showcase for the director’s style and his mean streak both.
Disapproving of her love affair, a millionaire sets out to teach his irresponsible daughter a lesson by pretending to lose all his money. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Our heroine is attacked by a creep (7:25). Pure Hitchcock. But not entirely what it seems.
Watch out for: Those alarmingly close subjective shots, most notably some tricksy ones through the bottom of a champagne glass.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And every schoolchild knows that statement is never more true than when the gent in question is a farmer.
Jameson Thomas, whom you you may not recognise under his bristly facial hair as the dashing lead in Piccadilly, plays Samuel Sweetland, a widowed farmer whose thoughts turn to matrimony. Samuel surveys the village women and sets about wooing potential Mrs Sweetlands, with hilariously disastrous results. Disastrous, but not in the usual vein of Hitchcock calamity. Samuel isn’t a perverted sex killer bumping women off in the dead of night. The Farmer’s Wife is a comedy, a broad one too, and the only injuries sustained are bruised egos and spoiled dinners.
Comedies are meant to have happy endings of course, and when I tell you Samuel is assisted in his quest for a new spouse by his sweet-faced and good-hearted housekeeper Araminta (Lillian Hall-Davis) perhaps you’ll be reassured that all will end well.
So how well does Hitchcock, acclaimed for his urban thrillers, succeed in staging a rural comedy? With flying colours. It’s not all down to the director, of course, this is an Eliot Stannard adaptation of a very popular play, but Hitchcock shoots The Farmer’s Wife as if it were a thriller, which somehow emphasises the poignancy of all these lonely people and their missed connections. His brisk economic style also ensure that the horseplay mostly doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Not exactly what you may expect from Hitchcock, but the silents rarely are, and there’s a huge amount to enjoy here.
A middle-aged widowed landowner decides to marry again. With the aid of his faithful housekeeper he draws up a list of all the eligible women in the neighbourhood, each of whom in turn rejects him. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Never mind the jelly and ice-cream, nor the awkward trouser situation. This proposal looks like one of Hitchcock’s murder scenes and features a very bizarre intertitle
Watch out for: The empty chair by the fireside. And what Hitchcock does with it.
Welcome back to our silent Hitchcock series. This week we’re looking at Downwhill (1927), hardly one of the director’s most acclaimed films, but one that offers rich, if distasteful, rewards for any Hitchcock aficionado. Dreamy Ivor Novello stars as Roddy, a sixth-former at a private school and thoroughly decent chap who takes the blame for a friend’s misbehaviour and suffers a degrading decline in his fortunes.
Downhill is clunky in places, and the thirtysomething Novello is one of cinema’s least convincing schoolboys, but the film’s strength lies in its brutal, single-minded nastiness. Cynical, misogynistic and determined to reveal the seediness beneath polite society, Downhill expresses the darkest of Hitchcock’s dark side – all without a single murder. It also gives us an insight into Novello’s psyche too; he co-wrote the play the film was based on, and one can only speculate whether he based it on any of his own experiences.
If you thought The Ring took a graphical idea and ran wild with it, then get a load of Downhill. Roddy’s progress through society, after his expulsion from school, is only going one way and that’s, er, down. You’ll find a lengthy shot of Novello slinking underground on Tube escalator – it’s widely mocked as the clumsiest example of Hitchcock warming to his theme.
There’s another, more interesting, pattern running through Downhill, though: the reveal. The most celebrated example is introduced by the intertitle “The world of make-believe”: a series of slowly retreating camera placements reframe a shot of Roddy in contradictory ways, forcing the audience to continually shift their interpretation. At first we think he’s a smartly dressed gent. Then a waiter. Then a thief. Finally, the camera pans right to uncover the true extent of Roddy’s social degradation – he’s on stage, an extra in a cheesy musical, bobbing like a chump.
Poor Roddy: such a noble young man, and so unfortunate to meet, and be mistreated by, some of the most grotesquely venal women ever committed to film. Hitchcock’s misogyny is often discussed in relation to his sound films and some possibly apocryphal pranks and fallings-out on set, but Downhill suggests the rot set in a lot earlier than that – in fact, it makes the likes of Vertigo seem positively sensitive. The Farmer’s Wife gets laughs out of silly and unattractive spinsters, but the women of Downhill are almost entirely self-interested monsters. There’s even a spot of casual transphobia (see the clip below).
Ultimately, these crudely drawn villainesses are not just a cause of politically correct 21st-century complaint: they contribute to the structural failure of the film. Downhill is all Roddy, all the time, and virtually everyone else on screen is a mere cipher, which is unsatisfactory all round.
Synopsis: A boy takes the blame for his best friend’s misdeed and is expelled from school. From that point on, his life proceeds on a downward spiral into poverty and degradation. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Another painful reveal: here’s why sunlight and early-hours drinking dens don’t mix.
Watch out for: A foretaste of Vertigo. No, not that shot, but a splash of sickly green tinting.
One of our very finest film directors tackles a drama by one of our very finest playwrights, and the result is … mixed. Easy Virtue is a very free adaptation of a Noel Coward play, with a script by Eliot Stannard. While it’s not an entirely successful movie, there is plenty of space here for the young Hitchcock to show us what he’s made of, with some rightly acclaimed sequences that are both smart and witty.
Indeed, at first glance Easy Virtue seems to be solid Hitchcock territory. Both the narrative setup and the moral message of the film both are concerned with the transferral of guilt, after all. The judge in our heroine Larita’s divorce case maligns her by convicting her of “misconduct” – and the world believes him. There’s some nice point-of-view business with the judge’s monocle (more circles!) to emphasise the flaw in his judicial vision, and a flashback to show us the truth of the matter, as opposed to the spectacle staged in the courtroom. Larita (Isabel Jeans) flees to the Mediterranean to escape the press attention and the slur on her virtue, but when she falls in love with a nice young Englishman and they return to stay with her new-in-laws, the divorce ruling becomes a classic Hitchcock bomb-under-the-table. Sooner or later, it’s going to blow up in her face …
Trouble is, this adaptation removes many of the shades of grey that Coward used to paint the stage Larita with. Hitchcock’s heroine is as sweet and innocent as the day is long, which makes her far less interesting and some of her more dramatic moments unconvincing. By and large the most successful section of the film is the first half, which deals with Larita’s trial and her romance with John (Robin Irvine), and all of which is new material for the film, not present in Coward’s play.
There’s wit, and a touch of glamour here, but little passion, and too much timidity. Had Hitchcock and his team not been held back by fear of the censor, or social acceptability, you feel they could have made much of the messy, complicated, terribly British problems that Larita faces. Her eventual gestures of defiance would have more power and this would be a far more exciting film. It’s all about sex, lies and suspicion, after all.
That said, Easy Virtue is more than worth a viewing. There’s a Hitchcock cameo here, lots of twists on his trademark business with voyeurism and an unexpectedly brutal meet-cute on the tennis court. My favourite thing here is how the length of the lovers’ journey back from France is measured by a dog. It’ll make sense when you see it, believe me.
Synopsis: Despite her totally innocent role in the events that led to it, divorce turns Larita Filton into a social outcast – and despite the love and support of her new husband she is constantly threatened by malicious gossip. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: John gets an answer from Larita, off-screen – but the telephone operator is listening in.
The only one of Hitchcock’s silents not to be a literary adaptation and his first to be made at British International Pictures, The Ring is a boxing movie, with a love triangle plot neatly expressed by the film’s central symbol. The ring is where Jack “One Round” Sander and his rival Bob compete, but it’s also a nod to the wedding band that Jack’s wife Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) wears, and her bracelet, which was given to her by … Bob.
With flashy editing that betrays a Soviet influence and some neat typological tricks too, The Ring is a visual triumph. The subject matter may not be what we expect from the master of suspense, but Hitchcock was very proud of it:
“You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”
The Bioscope was just as fond of it as it was of The Lodger, heralding it as “the most magnificent British film ever made”.
That said, The Ring is not so popular today. The plot lacks the fireworks of a Hitchcock thriller and the stars here are not so well remembered as Novello, say. There’s also the matter of some outdated and offensive language. The Ring is set in multiracial 1920s London, and yes, some people use that word. They did then. It’s not pleasant, but it’s not a reason to avoid the film.
The Ring is one of Hitchcock’s most successful silents, and its tight dramatic structure as well as its obsession with circles is a precursor to the pleasing graphical neatness of many of his better-loved later films: the grids of glass in Rear Window and the “criss-cross” of train tracks in Strangers on a Train. Indeed, from Kim Novak’s chignon to Janet Leigh’s iris, spirals and circles continued to fascinate Hitchcock throughout his career (the explanation for this may be slightly distasteful).
It’s also worth remembering that this is the work of Hitchcock’s A-team – he collaborated on the script with Eliot Stannard and, of course, Alma Reville. Those visual effects are enhanced by the work of painter W Percy Day, too.
This summer’s gala screening of the BFI’s restoration of The Ring promises to reinvigorate the film. A film with this much style and swagger will shine when it has been been fully restored and it’s going to be shown at the Hackney Empire with a score by Soweto Kinch, known for his socially aware fusion of hip-hop and jazz. Indeed, the premiere screening of the new print at this year’s Cannes apparently received a standing ovation.
Synopsis: Love triangle melodrama set in the world of boxing. When Jack ‘One Round’ Sander is discovered by promoter James Ware, his career takes off. But rival Bob Corby, heavyweight champion takes an interest in his girlfriend. (BFI Screenonline)
Hitchcock moment: Eight minutes in: a discovery, a proposal, and a whole lot of circles within circles.