Alfred Hitchcock may be the most famous film director who ever lived – a favorite of both the pleasure-loving public and theory-addled academics; the subject at once of bizarre biographical fantasies (now available in book and movie form) as well as of some of the most significant critical thinking of the last 50 years.
Most of his films are easily accessible through home video, while the work of many of his contemporaries has been allowed to sink into obscurity. Thirty-three years after his death, his image is as recognizable as that of Chaplin or Einstein.
And yet there’s a significant portion of Hitchcock’s work that has been neglected: his earliest features, made from 1925, when the 26-year-old Hitch made his debut with the melodrama “The Pleasure Garden,” to 1929, when he partly reshot the silent thriller “Blackmail” to add dialogue and sound effects, making it the first British talkie.
But now, Hitchcock’s silent films are back as “The Hitchcock 9,” a traveling program organized by the British Film Institute.
Two seem reborn:
Thanks to 20 minutes of restored footage and a vastly improved visual quality, “The Pleasure Garden” now feels like a fully realized film rather than a promising sketch; and “The Lodger,” Hitchcock’s third film (1927) and his first to join the subject of crime to the mechanisms of suspense, has been filled out with missing shots and returned to an approximation of the form in which it was first seen, including atmospheric color tinting.
This ambitious, roughly $3 million program originated in the cultural celebrations organized around the 2012 London Olympics.
If this initiative had a secret agenda, it was perhaps to reclaim one of England’s most famous expatriates – to re-establish the Britishness of a filmmaker who made his last British feature in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1955. If Hitchcock made his masterpieces in America, the essentials of his themes and style were established before he left for Hollywood.
Only two films of the “Hitchcock 9” are thrillers in the manner that would come to be associated with him: “The Lodger,” his first critical success, and “Blackmail” (1929), his last silent and his first to master the delicate dance of shifting subjectivities and transferred audience identification that would give his greatest work its moral and emotional force.
The most striking stylistic element in these films is Hitchcock’s vigorous use of the confrontational close-up, in which an actor looks into the camera and addresses the audience.
What you feel in these shots is Hitchcock’s eagerness to implicate the viewer in the action, to shake us out of the comfortable position of the detached voyeur and plunge us into the moment.
It is here that Hitchcock reveals his deep humanism. He insists that we feel the compulsion of the killer, the passion of the adulterer, the irrational shame of the unfairly accused, before we make an easy moral judgment and push them away.
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