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.
Lucky number seven. Today was a red-letter-day in Pordenone for many reasons. I rewatched one of my all-time favourite films, Anny Ondra finally came good, and I managed my first Felix-to-Ko-Ko shift (with a few breaks in between). No wonder I’ve got that Friday feeling.
Excluding the charming cartoons (although strictly we shouldn’t) the day opened, and closed, with rippling cornfields. First up was Zemlya (Earth, 1930): Dovzhenko’s classic hymn to nature. It played in the Ukrainian strand, with an impressive recorded score by DakhaBrakha. Just sublime and well worth the early start.
The day’s final cornfields came courtesy of the Swedish programme, and Rågens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929): a sumptous rural romantic drama with extra mysticism, sex and violence. Very Thomas Hardy. Gorgeously photographed, with flashes of Expressionism, it was directed by Ivan Johansson and adapted from a Finnish poem. Like so many of these Swedish films, it concerns a couple happily in love and the complications keeping them apart. The ending is beautiful, but as we’ve come to expect, slooooooow. It couldn’t be much more different from Earth, but there was a pleasing unity to the day, really.
Another disappointing Anny Ondra performance – but in an unforgettable movie – two Mothers, a part-talkie that wants to be a silent, a Lamprecht with a happy ending, and Buster Keaton with a Benshi. Day six at Pordenone, coming right up.
Let us begin with Anny Ondra. It has been extremely stressful. On paper, a programme of early films made by the bewitching star of The Manxman and Blackmail, Czechoslovakia’s first true silent movie star, promised to be my festival highlight. The reality has been brutal. In these early roles Ondra has had terribly little to do and been physically encumbered by towers of curls on her head and tentlike, unflattering dresses too. She has also, I would venture, been horribly underdirected. Hitchcock may have been a brute, but he would not have stood for her gazing into the near distance, twiddling her hair, when the camera was turning. Maybe she just needed a decent part to get her teeth stuck into; maybe the Czech film industry just didn’t know what they had in her. Maybe …
Anyway, we’ve seen some enjoyable if occasionally hamfisted movies in this strand, and while there has been not as much as we hoped to see from Ondra, I am calling her sometime husband Karel Lamac as the hardest-working man in the Prague movie industry at the time. We have seen drama, action and slapstick from this chap. And he even directed some of these flicks, including today’s absurdity, which was admittedly early in his career. Otrávené Svetlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921) was a bizarre concoction almost like an adventure serial, with a meandering plot, ever-present danger and nonsensical movie-science of the highest order. Lamac stars as well as directs, in a story that contains much codswallop, but principally codswallop concerning a series of assassinations carried out via toxic lightbulbs. When the filament gets too hot, the glass shatters, releasing … poison gas! Thus, late in the movie, we have the threat of murder courtesy of a desk lamp. An anglepoisoning. Ondra appears to be tranquilised, Lamac is heaving the whole messy endeavour on his broad shoulders and, yes, the quarry sequences are quite nice. I bust a gut laughing: definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good-OK-maybe-it’s-just-bad-no-stuff-it-I’ve-not-had-this-much-fun-in-years camp. Camp being the operative word.
An outstanding day at the Giornate: a varied programme of astonishing films, and excellent musical accompaniment. So while it was drizzly and grey outside, inside the Teatro Verdi all looked bright, even if most of the films tended towards bleakness. After the delightfully sugary surrealism of Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925) for breakfast, the Giornate hit us with some heavy emotional dramas today – and I relished them.
The slow but seductive tearjerker Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927) is the title track of the Swedish strand and it was a real beauty, directed by Gustaf Molander. Karin Swanström, director-star of Flickan i Frack pops up again (all too briefly as a jealous wife) in this Italian-set romance between a convent schoolgirl and a married English painter. Misunderstandings, emotional repression and heartbreak reverberated against a backdrop of stunning scenery, and with a nuanced, textured score by Stephen Horne too. All I spoke to agreed that the show was stolen by Stina Berg (also seen in Polis Paulus Paskasmäll) as the snuff-snorting nun Sister Scolastica – at her best when engaged in a comedy double-cat with a recalcitrant donkey. The opening sequence, in which Scolastica attempts to take her young charge to the train station was a beautifully simple idea, warmly and expertly played out.
The second Swedish title of the day came with a warning attached: it starts slow, cautioned the Giornate programme, but soon warms up. Did it ever. In Den Starkaste (The Strongest, 1929) two sailors compete for the hand of the skipper’s daughter, and despite her clear preference for one, and via many complications, they take their macho competitive streaks out into the Arctic Ocean where they are hunting on rival vessels. Blood is spilt on the glaciers, most of it belonging to seals – and in the staggering last reel, polar bears. Polar bears! The Arctic photography is crisp and gorgeous (especially when soundtracked by John Sweeney on the piano), and comes courtesy of expert Swedish cinematographer Axel Lindblom – who is also said to have photographed A Cottage on Dartmoor, more of which tomorrow.
They say the world is divided between night owls and early-rising larks. Here at the Giornate, we split in two similar camps: are you up and at ’em first thing for Felix the Cat, who opens each day of the festival, or up all night with curtain-closer Koko the Clown? Your humble correspondent, it seems, is very much a cat person.
And by lunchtime today I was longing for the narrative simplicity of our lovable early morning Felix cartoon (Felix Loses Out, 1924). There was much to enjoy in the morning screenings, but either my mind was especially feeble or the plotting in some of the comedies was needlessly complex. First up, we had a Czech Anny Ondra double-bill. Chytÿte ho! (1925) was a romp and a half – Ondra plays a young lady whose guardian was a chronic gambler. There is a charming but dissolute artist, a gang of robbers and all kinds of shenanigans involving a stolen dowry. Ondra is all impish charm when in front of the camera, but most of the running time was taken up by male lead Karel Lamac undertaking a series of increasingly inventive comic stunts – the only shame was that the execution fell short of the imagination. Still lively stuff, and for me, preferable to the following film, Dáma S Malou Nozkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1920). A couple of amateur sleuths, one wily, one scrappy and dwarfish, attempt to recover a case of stolen money. It’s a strange film, made stranger by a missing length of film that renders one subplot barely intelligible. Strange too, in that it resists the expected narrative resolution. As it says in an intertitle, it’s a “comical piece about a detective, who discovered nothing, but found his true love”. Anny Ondra appears briefly as a young lady who has feet that are small, shapely and completely irrelevant to the plot. Anny, meet the “MacGuffin”, your friend Alfred will tell you more later …
I had little time for Polis Paulus Paskasmäll (The Smugglers, 1925) in the Swedish strand, though others heartily enjoyed it. Its stars were a famous comic duo in Denmark, though as far as I could tell their humour was based on the fact that one was shorter and fatter than the other, who in turn had a ridiculous moustache. Bucketloads of plot here, too, as love affairs, criminal schemes and old rivalries cause havoc among the residents and staff of a ski hotel. There was some excellent slapstick here (a sequence in which the taller comedian dressed himself in a bearskin rub, notably) but though you may call me shallow for it, my favourite thing in this film was leading lady Lili Lani’s chic winter wardrobe.
Hello. Has it really been a whole year since this? Hold on to your bonnets, because we are back in Pordenone and it’s Saturday night. It’s time. To face. The silents.
Which is another way of saying the the 32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto has begun, and just a few hours in, we have have had a sampler of diverse treats to come.
My highlight of the first day comes from Sealed Lips, the Swedish strand of the programme that I had big hopes for. Flickan i Frack (The Girl in Tails, 1926) is essentially a teen rom-com, but one saturated in enough intersectional goodness for a PhD dissertation or two. The population of a small provincial town get themselves into terrible muddles by going about various kinds of drag – dressing up or down socially, mostly, but there is also moral posturing, intellectual pretension and, crucially, some audacious transvestism in the mix. Despite such a heavy burden of subtext and inference, Flickan i Frack is light on its feet, witty and winningly romantic. It was directed by Karin Swanström, better known perhaps as an actress – and it is very much a female-oriented film, from its bright heroine who attends her graduation ball in a man’s dress suit (just to make a point, with seemingly no fear that her boyfriend might dislike it, and looking utterly fabulous) to the malevolent matriarch upon whom her future happiness depends (played brilliant by Swanström) and the “wild herd of learned women” who loiter ambiguously in the background.
But I am getting ahead of myself. My first glimpse of the festival, as I scurried in late to the first session, was of Anny Ondra, plonked on a hay cart and throwing a fit. The minutes I caught of Gilly Poprvé v Praze (1920) were a lively, rowdy introduction to the Giornate’s Ondra retrospective. It was also far shorter and sweeter than the following feature. Setrele Písmo (The Missing Letters, 1921), was a messy, rather over-extended and patchy film about (bear with me) two sculptors (one morally lax and successful, the other upstanding and impoverished) the former’s two models (one vengeful and brunette, one blonde and rather dull), a couple of palimpsests, some hidden treasure, the construction industry and public arts funding. Nice funicular sequence. Ondra, in an early and atypical role as the second model, was called on to do little more than pose on a pedestal, play with a puppy and pout prettily. To be fair to the film, as we must, it was the product of a garbled production process, incorporating footage from an earlier movie. No wonder its plot had as many layers as one of those palimpsests.
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).
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.