Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail was released 90 years ago this June. This is a version of a piece I wrote for the Loud Silents estival screening of the film in 2015. The 2019 Loud Silents festival takes place 12-14 April in Tampere, Finland.
In Blackmail (1929), Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film, guilt spreads like a virus across London, from criminal to accomplice, and as it travels, it subsumes the city itself. By the end of this film, even London’s most respectable neighbourhoods will have been transformed by a rippling crimewave. And Hitchcock’s use of key locations in the city maps this disruption, illustrating the terrible consequences of his heroine’s fatal mistake.
Hitchcock was certainly a law-fearing Londoner. He grew up in a flat over a greengrocer’s shop in the eastern suburb of Leytonstone, but by the time he made Blackmail, he had lived, worked and studied all over the city. We know that he was a keen film and theatregoer in his youth, fascinated by lurid crime stories. We also know that he grew up in awe of the police, a terror exacerbated if not born when his father punished him by having him locked in a cell at the local station – he was just five years old. Many of his best films, from The Lodger (1927) to Frenzy (1972), via Sabotage (1936) portray the city of his birth as a dangerous place, stalked by terrorists and serial killers who make the streets unsafe.
Blackmail takes in some of London’s most famous landmarks, from Scotland Yard to the Palace of Westminster to the British Museum, and the first twenty minutes of the film travel full-tilt across the city, from west to east and back again, in the company of a sharp-jawed detective called Frank (John Longden). We begin the movie on the right side of the law, and with the criminals in their expected place. So naturally, we begin at Great Scotland Yard, Whitehall, slap-bang in the heart of the Establishment.
The camera travels with the flying squad on their way to arrest a wrong ’un. We are not privy to the exact address, but the arches and tenements at their destination suggest the inner East End, and the criminal they arrest is straight out of a rogue’s gallery. As soon as the coppers arrive, he reaches for the gun on his bedside table. Continue reading Blackmail’s London: Alfred Hitchcock’s city of crime→
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television
Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.
This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.
My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.
Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.
So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.
As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. Brand will accompany a screening of Alfred hitchcock’s The Ring at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 October 2015
The Ring is the only Hitchcock movie scenario that Hitch wrote himself. His highly regarded screenwriter Elliott Stannard, Hitch and Alma, his wife plotted it out together, inventing wonderful visual set-pieces such as a sideshow boxer’s rise through the ranks shown as changing fight posters over the months and the leading character’s Othello-like jealousy growing throughout a drink-fuelled dinner party.
Lillian Hall-Davis arguably precedes Anny Ondra as Hitch’s first sexy femme fatale, particularly in this film, in which she loses her head to boxing beefcake Ian Hunter despite marrying genuine athlete Carl Brisson, who is forced to fight for his wife’s affections.
I first scored this film over 10 years ago for a small jazz ensemble and have always loved its daring, its cheeky vivacity and the physicality of its fight scenes. But where did Hitch’s love of the fight game come from, and what does this eccentric film tell us about its creator?
Are you currently perched on a plump suitcase, train tickets in hand, perusing the Leicester Phoenix listings and counting the days on your fingers until the British Silent Film Festival begins on Thursday? Well why not?
The four-day event is nearly upon us, and this is your friendly reminder to get your gorgeous selves to Leicester next weekend for some hot silent film action. This year the festival is back in the city of its birth, and most of the films will be shown at the Leicester Phoenix cinema and art centre. The schedule is out now, and the selection looks fantastic, with everything from rare historical footage of the sinking of the Lusitania to a programme devoted to Buster Keaton; the splendour of Michel Strogoff starring Ivan Mosjoukine and the antique charm of early screen advertising. If you read Charles Barr’s recent Hitchcock Lost and Found, you’ll no doubt be intrigued that a film the young Master of Suspense worked on that had previously been thought lost, Three Live Ghosts (1922) has been unearthed in a Russian archive and will play at this year’s festival.
There is a focus on the transition to sound in Britain, so there are some early talkies in the mix as well as the silents, and there are fancy-dan screenings in the evenings, with the chance to hear brand new scores by some of our favourite musicians.
The Bank of England doesn’t usually let the public have a say in its decisions, but there is a first time for everything. Having decided to boot Adam Smith’s profile off the £20 banknote, the Bank asked the public to help them choose a replacement – although the institution itself has the final say. Those of us who spend rather than print the money were invited to nominate a visual artist for the bank to select from. An astonishing 29,701 bids came in, resulting in a longlist of 592 British visual artists that someone out there deems worthy of having their face on folding money. The Bank will draw up a shortlist from these names for the Governor to examine, and they will announce the chosen face in early 2016, with the new £20 note finally coming into circulation in 2020.
This is the selection criteria for the new face of the score note:
Through its depiction of historic characters on its banknotes the Bank seeks to celebrate individuals that have shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society. We do this by representing a person or small groups of individuals whose accomplishments or contributions have been recognised widely at the time, or judged subsequently to have been of lasting benefit to the United Kingdom and, in some cases, beyond.
In choosing the character or characters to appear on a specific note, the Bank takes account of its past decisions. This is because the Bank intends to celebrate achievement and contribution across a wide range of skills and fields and aims, through time, to depict characters with varied personal characteristics, such that our choices cumulatively reflect the diverse nature of British society.
Did you vote? I suspect some of you might have done, because the longlist is a fascinating read: so many esteemed, and not so highly esteemed, artists appear,including film-makers from Carol Reed to Stanley Kubrick. And there are definitely a few cinematic stars who fulfil that note about “a wide range of skills and fields”, as well as “characters with varied personal characteristics”, although not perhaps reflecting the “diverse nature of British society”. More specifically, I was heartened to see some key figures from the silent era there: from the expected nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, to more leftfield choices such as Maurice Elvey and Louis Le Prince.
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?
It’s remarkable what you can pick up in three minutes and 45 seconds. This short video by Gary Chapman, author of London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, is an excellent introduction to the British Famous Players-Lasky outpost.
This is the time and the place where Victor Saville and Michael Balcon began their ascent through the British movie industry, where Ivor Novello smouldered for Graham Cutts, and where Alfred met Alma, while making a film or two you may have heard of …
Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.
FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.
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.
This is a guest post for Silent London by David Cairns, a film-maker and lecturer based in Edinburgh who writes the fantastic Shadowplay blog. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
It’s impossible to tot up a list of “the greatest” or even “my favourite” lost films, since they are by definition lost and impossible to assess, at least without using supernatural powers or outright lying. These are just 10 that produce in me a particularly sharp pang of longing.
1) The Drag Net(1928). Since Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld reinvented the gangster movie as romantic tragedy, and still stands up as a rip-roaring urban fantasy comparable in its antisocial mayhem to a Grand Theft Auto game with love scenes, the fact that the second silent crime thriller he made, refining his take in the genre, is not known to survive anywhere, is heartbreaking.
Sternberg was particularly targeted by the vicissitudes of fate in his career. Weirdly, those of his films whose destruction was ordered, such asThe Blue Angel (by the Nazis), The Devil is a Woman (by Spain’s Guardia Civil) have survived, whereas The Case of Lena Smith exists only as a tantalising 10-minute fragment. A Woman of the Sea may have been destroyed on the orders of its producer, Charlie Chaplin, but a second print remains unaccounted for …
2) Similarly, while the British courts ordered FW Murnau’s Nosferatu destroyed for copyright infringement, the unauthorised adaptation of Draculasurvived, but nearly all his earlier movies are lost, including Der Januskopf(The Janus-Face, 1920), an unauthorised adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Why this matters: the star was Conrad Veidt (seen looking angst-ridden in a few grainy stills), the screenplay was by Caligari scribe Hans Janowitz, and Bela Lugosi had a smaller role. Plus, you know, it’s Murnau. Doing a horror film.
Several of Murnau’s German silents are completely lost or survive only in tiny pieces. 4 Devils, his last Hollywood film, is also MIA.
3) Another German in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch, suffered a major loss when The Patriot(1928) vanished from the earth. This is particularly appalling since the film won best screenplay (Hans Kraly) at the 1930 Academy Awards. Also, the star of the film is Emil Jannings. The movie is far enough removed from Lubitsch’s usual brand of movies that it might be hard to know exactly what we’re missing, but the trailer for this one surivives and the vast, expressionistic sets haunted by Lubitsch’s restless camera make this look like one of the most impressive films of the silent era. Sob.
4) The Divine Woman(1928) is, of course, Greta Garbo. Her director is fellow Swede Victor Sjostrom (or Seastrom) and her co-star is Lars Hanson. And there are nine minutes of this in existence to make you yearn for the rest all the more desperately. What we can see in the clip (which turned up in Russia after Glasnost) suggests a rather more boisterous Garbo than we’re used to seeing, throwing herself at Hanson and yanking him about by the hair in an affectionate but rather rough fashion. Another 71 minutes of that, please.
5) The Mountain Eagle(1926). Its own director thought this one was rubbish, but as he was Alfred Hitchcock I’d still like to see it. It was his second directorial effort. A recent restoration of his first, The Pleasure Garden, has revealed it to be a better film than we all thought. Who knows what a rediscovery of the followup might reveal?
In the interview, Chandler asks Stephen about how he started out playing for silent films, and Stephen reveals that The Passion of Joan of Arc was the intimidating first film he ever accompanied. They also discuss the differences between composition and improvisation, and in more detail, the music that Stephen has played and written for Stella Dallas, The Manxman, Prix de Beauté and The First Born. Thanks to Chandler and Stephen for allowing me to post this fascinating conversation here on Silent London.
Jonathan Croall would like to introduce you to his father, his father’s friends and their neglected, but fascinating, glory days. Readers of this blog will recognise Croall’s father as John Stuart, the dashing star of many a British silent movie, including The Pleasure Garden, Roses of Picardy and Hindle Wakes, plus many more talkies besides. Stuart worked right until the late 70s. His last big-screen role was as a Kryptonian elder in 1978’s Superman.
This lovingly written and hugely informative book, Forgotten Stars: My Father and the British Silent Film World, is concerned with Stuart’s heyday, however, and his cohorts in Britain’s silent movie industry. As Croall tells his father’s story, he loops in the tales of the actors, writers, producers and directors he worked with: there’s Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock; Lillian Hall-Davis and Estelle Brody; the Film Society and the coming of sound. It’s a distinctive methodology – a chapter on a wider topic will suddenly focus on anecdotes from Stuart’s career alone, and then usher in two more dramatis personae. Under the chapter heading Fans and Fan Clubs, say, one reads several paragraphs on the publicity industry surrounding silent movie stars. Beneath the subheading A Star Under Siege we encounter a story about Stuart being mobbed by fans at the Film Artists’ Fair, which leads to a discussion of his fans, his fan club, his gruelling schedule of personal appearances and the speeches he made. (These sections that dwell solely on Stuart’s career are flagged with his smiling portrait.) This is then followed by two profiles of British silent cinema’s two biggest stars: Betty Balfour and Ivor Novello.
Back by popular demand, Hitchcock’s silent movies take over the BFI Southbank for a second summer in a row: all of them freshly restored by the BFI experts and all either with live musical accompaniment or a range of very classy recorded scores. You can read more about each film on Silent London here. These are the first feature films Hitchcock ever made, and from the expressionist thriller The Lodger to the rustic comedy of The Farmer’s Wife they are clearly the work of an extremely talented and versatile director. In fact, they were recently inducted into the Unesco Memory of the World register.
All of which Hitchcock fandom is a preamble to saying that I have three pairs of tickets, to a silent Hitchcock screening of your choice, to give away. Hurry, because the season has already started, and I will be choosing the winner on Monday morning. Email the correct answer to this question to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Hitchcock” in the subject line by midnight on Sunday 11 August 2013 for your chance to win.
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”
A folk romance that stumbles into melodrama, an adaptation of a blockbusting novel that is now all-but forgotten, The Manxman may seem to be far more of its time than ours. But the London film festival’s archive gala screening of this neglected Hitchcock film was having none of that. The red carpet was rolled out in Leicester Square and the crowds in the Empire cinema foyer were stocking up on nachos and popcorn before taking their seat. OK, so some of assembled throng were clutching tickets for Dredd or Madagascar 3, but Screen One was devoted to a lush, heartbreaking night of silent cinema.
And the venue was oddly appropriate. Back in its music-hall days, the Empire was the first London venue to run a paid-for programme of films. It’s a long journey from the Lumiéres’ actualities to the gorgeousness of The Manxman – arguably they have more in common with the 3D thrills on offer in the neighbouring screens – but it’s a happy connection to make.
The Manxman was Hitchcock’s final “pure” silent – he was to shoot his next film Blackmail in both silent and sound versions – and the romance of the film’s story is augmented by the thought that the director was leaving his beloved silent cinema days behind him. Perhaps that is why the film is so unashamedly picturesque. The Cornish coast that doubles for the story’s Manx setting is imposing, but gorgeous. Hungarian star Anny Ondra is filmed as a tiny silhouette in front of sun-punctured cloud, skipping down vertiginous cliffs or strolling with her lover in dappled woods – and the film begins and ends with a view of fishing boats in the harbour. These images, like the film itself, combine prettiness with an air of intangible, elemental danger, and it’s this that makes The Manxman such a gripping watch.
Because this movie can be tough too: when a crisis arrives, a disconcerting cut from a body falling into water to a pen plunging into an inkwell is as violent as Hitchcock at his familiarly cold-hearted best. On this screen, and with the benefit of the BFI’s new gleaming restoration, it looked spectacular.
Ondra plays Kate, the daughter of the local pub landlord (a brilliantly grim-faced turn by Randle Ayrton). Best pals daft-but-dishy Pete, a fisherman (Carl Brisson), and Philip, an ambitious lawyer (Malcolm Keen), are each in love with Kate, but the latter is playing his cards close to his chest. In an excruciatingly twisted balcony scene, Pete coaxes Kate into an engagement, a promise to wait for him while he goes overseas to make his fortune. At first Kate doesn’t take him seriously, and it’s not clear which of the men – the one proposing or the faithful chum who is (literally) supporting him – is causing her to simper and pout. However it was extracted, it’s a rash promise to make, and as we’ll see, it will have terrible implications. Needless to say, while the cat is away, Kate strays, but what happens next is horrific, and not so easy to predict.
We have heard a few silent film scores recently (in this Hitchcock season no less) that have seemed to smooth out, or trample over the nuances of each scene. Not so here. Stephen Horne‘s rich score for The Manxman is alert to each turn of conversation, each double-meaning, furtive glance or blush. It’s a piece that is always a pleasure to listen to, but unafraid to sacrifice its melody to the drama when needed. This is crucial for The Manxman, where the plot hinges on whispered revelations, changes of heart and emotionally gruesome details – Kate’s face when her fiancé appoints his friend best man at their wedding, or she cuts her hand on their cake. The tempo slackens forebodingly when mid-speech, Phil is distracted by the sight of Pete and Kate together and the music follows the lead of Hitchcock’s stormy lighting effects, colouring each scene with shades of what is yet to happen. While the strings and piano offer folk melodies, there’s often a rumbling bass drum warning of impending disaster and even, at one crucial point, a very assertive oboe. The flute solo when Pete visits Phil towards the end of the film is particularly poignant; the ensemble together replicating the texture of nagging voices in the final scene especially cruel.
No one will argue that The Manxman is Hitchcock’s finest hour, the acting from the two male leads is often very weak, and the storyline offers only emotional trauma rather than his familiar bloody shocks. Despite those reservations, it is a sharply beautiful film and Anny Ondra’s sleepy-eyed romantic fool gives us a great Hitchcock Blonde before icy Grace Kelly was even born. The joy for us now is that Horne’s score gives The Manxman its best possible chance to shine, not just following but enhancing our pleasure in watching Hitchcock toy with this doomed love triangle.
Stephen Horne’s score for The Manxman was performed by Stephen Horne (piano/accordion/flute), Jennifer Bennett (fiddle/viola), Joby Burgess (percussion), Janey Miller (oboe/oboe d’Amore) and Ruth Wall (lever harp/wire harp).
There are plenty of changes afoot at the BFI London film festival, with a new artistic director, more venues being used around the capital and a rejigged set of thematic categories across the programme. The Treasures strand has been beefed up, and that can only mean good news for silent film enthusiasts. So, without further preamble, here’s what you can look forward to this year:
This is the big one, the archive gala presentation. Hitchcock’s tragic coastal romance is one of his most beautiful films, and an accomplished, fascinating silent. Anny Ondra, Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen take their places at the corners of an Isle of Man love triangle, and Hitchcock milks their doom-laden situation for every drop of suspense. This will of course be a presentation of the BFI’s new restoration of the film, and as he did last year with The First Born, Stephen Horne will be writing and performing a brand new score.
Rather dishearteningly described as ‘Tim Burton meets The Artist’, Pablo Berger’s modern silent plays three times during the festival, in the Cult strand. It’s a Gothic adaptation of Snow White, set in the world of bullfighting in 1920s Spain and it looks very intriguing. You can read more here and we’ll have a better idea what to expect when the reviews come in from its screenings at the San Sebastian and Toronto festivals later this month.
UPDATE: Unfortunately I have just learned that Guy Maddin will no longer be able to attend the Keyhole premiere. The competition is still running, however.
No film director in the world takes more inspiration from early and silent cinema than Guy Maddin does. From his silent short The Heart of the World, to the dreamy textures of his features, such as The Saddest Music in the World and Brand Upon the Brain!, through to his hugely ambitious “lost films” project Spiritismes, Maddin has demonstrated a career-long passion for early cinema. His newest film Keyhole is also heavily influenced by classic Hollywood. AO Scott in the New York Times described it as “a dusty attic full of battered, evocative cultural references … a perfect gateway into the bizarre and fertile world of a unique film artist.”
Canadian director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, The Saddest Music in the World) is renowned for his exploration of surreal worlds and ghosts, which most recently has manifested itself in his ongoing Spiritismes project, launched at the Pompidou this March. His latest feature Keyhole, featuring deliciously unhinged performances from Isabella Rossellini, Jason Patric and Udo Kier, is a fabulous and bizarre personal-odyssey-cum-supernatural-thriller that exposes the hidden desires of the Pick family, their phantoms and the gang of thugs who inhabit the shadows of their crumbling home.
Keyhole will premiere at the BFI Southbank on Monday 13th August, at a special screening that will be followed by a Q&A with the director in which he will talk not just about the new film, but about his latest silent project – one that is of particular interest to readers of Silent London.
Guy Maddin’s current project Spiritismes is a unique, live production/online project that brings back to life ‘unrealised, half-finished, lost or abandoned films’ by the great masters of the cinema: Cocteau, Vigo, Murnau … BFI’s special UK Premiere Fundraiser of Keyhole is being presented, courtesy of Soda Pictures, to enable Guy Maddin to ‘channel’ Hitchcock’s lost film The Mountain Eagle. All proceeds from the screening will be donated to the production and Maddin will be in attendance to talk about Keyhole, Hitchcock and Spiritismes.
So, buy a ticket for Monday’s event and you will be helping this acclaimed and distinctive director to recreate the lost Hitchcock film The Mountain Eagle.
To win a pair of tickets to the premiere of Keyhole at BFI Southbank, simply email the answer to this simple question to email@example.com with Keyhole in the subject header by noon on Friday 10 August 2012.
Name Guy Maddin’s hometown in Canada, referred to in the title of one of his most famous films.
Don’t forget that the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock retrospective begins in earnest this month. In fact, you can kick off the celebration with a Blackmail silent-and-sound double-bill tonight. For the other silents in the season, check the Silent London Calendar.
First off you won’t want to miss the theatrical release of The Lodger on 10 August – there’s a special screening at BFI Southbank featuring a Q&A with composer Nitin Sawhney too.
Next month, you’ll want to note some other Hitchcock dates in your diary to see the new restorations of his silent films. There’s a second chance to see The Pleasure Garden with Daniel Patrick Cohen’s marvellous score on 13 September. Downhill will screen with a live score from beatboxer Shlomo on 20 September and there’s a screening of Champagne with “boldly classical” music from Mira Calix on 27 September. There’s the restoration premiere of Easy Virtue on 28 September, too.
To win a pair of tickets to the any silent screening at the BFI this month, simply email the answer to this simple question to firstname.lastname@example.org with August in the subject header by noon on Friday 3 August 2012.
What is the name of Hitchcock’s lost silent feature film, starring Nita Naldi?
The Genius of Hitchcock season runs until October and showcases a complete retrospective of his films, from his early British silents, to his later Hollywood classics. Also included in the season is a dedicated microsite, The 39 Steps to Hitchcock, which is a step-by-step guide through one man’s genius, featuring exclusive film extracts, interviews with close collaborators (Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren and more) and a journey through his life and career through galleries curated by Hitchcock experts.
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.