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Empire (2010) - The silent years




The silent years

Even without sound, it was still screaming

Alfred Hitchcock entered the film industry in 1921, as a designer of title cards (those panels of 'dialogue' in silent films) — ironically, since when he became a director he tried to use as few as possible and rely on images to tell the story. He was promoted to art director, dabbled in writing and made an abortive start as a director in 1922, with Number 13 —a production abandoned when the money ran out.

After working uncredited on something called Always Tell Your Wife (one reel still exists at the BFI), he made his official debut in 1925 with The Pleasure Garden, a British film produced by Michael Balcon and shot in Germany. Despite their subsequent differences, Hitchcock credited Balcon with his invention: "Balcon is the man responsible for Hitchcock," he told Peter Bogdanovich. "I had been quite content writing scripts and designing."

A backstage soap opera which would have been a musical if it were a talkie, The Pleasure Garden still points to Hitch's eventual métier: it opens with voyeuristic men ogling showgirls'1 legs and closes with a rampaging psycho. Over four years, Hitchcock directed nine silents, becoming the most important director in Britain before his 30th birthday. His last, Blackmail, was an alternative version of his — and Britain's — first talkie.

The best-known (and most important) of Hitch's silents is The Lodger, which clearly falls into the suspense genre: a mystery man (Ivor Novello) is suspected of being a Ripper-like serial killer, and pursued by both police and Mob. Hitchcock complained he was not allowed to follow the novel, but made up for it by reworking the material, and original ending, as Shadow Of A Doubt. In fact, the wrong man-accused theme, and specific images like escaping while handcuffed, would recur throughout his career. A shot of the lodger trying the door of a bathroom where a blonde is undressing for a bath anticipates Psycho by 30 years.

Hitch tended to downplay his other silent films as insufficiently Hitchcockian, but many were prestige productions in their day — suggesting the sort of profile attained by Anthony Minghella or Sam Mendes. The Mountain Eagle, which is lost, is an outdoor drama; The Ring is a boxing story; Downhill follows an expelled public schoolboy on the road to ruin; The Farmer's Wife and The Manxman are regional subjects from a popular play and novel, one comic, one tragic; Easy Virtue, recently remade, is a Noël Coward snobfest; and Champagne is a skittish screwball comedy about a madcap heiress (his stills photographer was a young Michael Powell). All are interesting, and heavily influenced by German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau; when pressed on his influences, he would mutter, "The Germans, the Germans." While working in Berlin, he met Murnau. "What you see on the set does not matter," Murnau advised. "All that matters is what you see on the screen." He took it to heart.