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Boston Globe (08/Jul/1993) - MFA screening new prints of choice early Hitchcock movies



MFA screening new prints of choice early Hitchcock movies

It's not surprising to learn that Alfred Hitchcock, who meticulously story-boarded all his films, trained as a mechanical draftsman. His first film job was designing title cards for silents. His origins as the master of suspense will be the subject of a choice early Hitchcock retro starting tonight and extending through Aug. 19 at the Museum of Fine Arts. In all, 16 films will be shown in new prints made by the British Film Institute with a grant from Piper-Heidsieck Champagne — an irony that would have been appreciated by the man who was fond of saying, deadpan, "Many films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake."

If you'll forgive the mixed metaphor, Hitchcock was a baker who knew how to pull our strings. An argument can be made that he never was to equal in Hollywood the handful of British black-and-white suspense films that made his reputation. One of his four British classics, "The Lady Vanishes" (1938), is being screened tonight at 8:15. Fleet and witty, it unravels the disappearance of a tweedy Englishwoman named Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) aboard a train hurtling through an apocryphal European country on the eve of World War II. Whether because of pressures from the British film censors or an aristocracy that harbored a not inconsiderable number of Nazi sympathizers, Hitchcock's prewar spy thrillers never named the country as Germany, but with suave villains like Paul Lukas on hand, there was little doubt about its identity.

"The Lady Vanishes," with a jaunty Michael Redgrave making his debut opposite sophisticated Margaret Lockwood and the prototypical cricket-obsessed English stereotypes Charters and Caldicott (who were to pop up in a series of their own), stands up well. So do "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Sabotage" (1936) and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" with Peter Lorre (1934) — regrettably not on the program. It's instructive and reassuring to note that it took Hitchcock a while to become Hitchcock. The series contains films whose entertainment value is intermittent. "Mary" (1931), showing tonight at 5:30 p.m., is a remake of Hitchcock's "Murder!" (1930) for the German market (remakes for the foreign market were common at the time — the Spanish-language "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi is a camp classic!).

"Murder!" (8 p.m. Aug. 5) is a curio, a stagebound film about an aristocratic actor who investigates a murder to clear the actress convicted of the crime. Its snobbery makes it offensive, but there's an affection for theater folk that comes through and there are a couple of what were at the time experimental sound sequences — one with Herbert Marshall's lordly sleuth looking into his shaving mirror while a voiceover intones his thoughts, another with a reduced orchestra playing the "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" on the other side of the set wall as his thoughts darken. In all, the early talkies bear out the cinematographers in "Visions of Light," who recall the way sound slowed film down and rendered it static as finicky microphones superseded the camera.

Still, there's a lot of stylish excitement in Hitchcock's first talkie, "Blackmail" (1929) (Aug. 19 at 6 p.m.). That's because Hitchcock had shot it as a silent before the studio demanded that he reshoot it with dubbed sound. Not only does it climax with a terrific chase scene across the domed roof and into the bowels of the British Museum, skillfully deploying rear projection; it also is Hitchcock's most psychologically complex film of the '20s. Nobody's hands are clean — not the woman who knifed an artist to death when he tried to rape her, not the detective who bends the law to shield her, nor the blackmailer who only wanted petty cash but finds himself in over his head. Hitchcock, who had worked in Germany and was strongly influenced by the German Expressionists — as his compositions and shadowplay repeatedly show — also was aware of the uses of Expressionistic sound, using the word "knife" as a potent motif.

"Aventure Malgache" (1944), preceding "Mary" tonight at 5:30, and "Bon Voyage" (1944) — Aug. 5 at 6 p.m — amount to nuggets for the Hitchcock completist, in the words of Tom Milne, who provided subtitles for both. Few Hitchcock fans have heard of, much less seen, these shorts Hitchcock made in London in 1943 for the war effort. His job was to promote Gaullist resistance in the colonies utilizing French actors who fled to London. "Bon Voyage" details the debriefing by a Free French intelligence officer of an RAF gunner who escaped from a POW camp and made it back to Britain only to learn that the heroic Pole he thought made it possible was a sly Gestapo double agent. "Aventure Malgache" details the radicalizing of an elderly lawyer of Madagascar into a Resistance fighter. Less tricky in plot, it's richer in Hitchcockian detail. Even here, though, Hitchcock wouldn't play the game. The political splits he depicted among the French made the authorities decide not to release it.