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The Guardian (11/Jun/1927) - THE WEEK ON SCREEN: Britain's Baby

(c) The Guardian (11/Jun/1927)


Britain's Baby

I have been, waiting for a long time for some high personage in the ranks of the defenders of the quota to say something about Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, but since nobody else seems inclined for the job I shall take the excuse of his hew film "Downhill" to talk about Mr. Hitchcock myself.

I do not believe that the British film trade, nor, for that matter, the British film public, has any real estimate of his quality, and I am quite certain from the fact that he is still working in this country that the America kinema knows nothing about him at all. A few serious-minded people who saw "The Lodger" in the picture theatres have remembered Hitchcock as a power on the screen. To the majority he is still a stranger. He has made, I think, four pictures only, and the fourth of these, "Downhill," has not yet been publicly shown. Some bright publicity agent, meaning to be very nice to Hitchcock, once christened him "Britain's youngest film producer," and the name has stuck. He has joined the splendid ranks of the first and the last, the tallest and the shortest, the richest and the poorest, the fattest and the thinnest, and will be Britain's youngest film producer till he dies. I do not myself consider these records as infallible testimonies of genius. I once saw a three-day-old baby on the screen — surely a record in juvenility, — and I cannot remember any unusual merit in his work. But if the best producer in England is going to be known and remembered for his comparative lack of years I should be the last to deplore the tag, for there is no precedent whatsoever for expecting him to be recognised for any innate qualities of mind or eye.

There are four British producers at the present time whose work can be regarded optimistically. These are Hitchcock and Elvey, Brunel and Manning Haynes. The last pair are meticulous, unsentimental, and considered; they make few pictures, and make them remarkably well. Maurice Elvey is responsible for as many bad films as any producer in the trade. The British kinema of four and five years ago was littered with his mistakes. Then he went to America and. learnt how to make bad films well; came back and demonstrated with "Mademoiselle from Armentieies." I do not regret "Mademoiselle." Nobody who cares for the future of the British screen can regret it. For although it was a bad film it taught its maker to find himself; Ied him, making a bad film well, to want to try his hand at a good film, "Hindle Wakes,", which followed it, introduced the new Elvey. "Roses of Picardy" found, him still in possession. Such a rapid and prolific worker will always have his failures, but I am ready to believe that the main body of his production has passed the danger-point and that he can be relied upon to give the British kinema a number of happy and creditable to-morrows.

Hitchcock's is different case. He is more or less new to the kinema: such traditions as he reveres are of the post-German unrepresentational school, and he has never had to go through the shops of commercial hack-work nor adapt himself to a changing technique. He has not, nor has any desire to have, the popular touch. I should be astounded to find him producing best-sellers either graciously of well. Elvey could and would, not Hitchcock could not and would not, satisfy the generous sentimentality of the crowd. Whether he is a conscious expressionist, or an expressionist in spite of himself, is a little difficult to determine; his work is still largely tentative, and he is inclined to rub out one method with another, to blue his effects by prodigality, until one is not quite sure which is Hitchcock and which is the Hitchcock that Hitchcock things he ought to be.

"The Lodger" was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, imagination, and an entirely new angle — new, that, is to say, in an English studio of visual expression. "Downhill" carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film. It is interesting. It is shrewd. It is brilliantly to the point of the camera. But the danger of a man possessing an individual and startling style is that he is apt not to be particular about the occasions on which he uses it. The material of "The Lodger" was slight and sensational, but the material of "Downhill" is down-right bad. Two schoolboys are accused of getting a girl into trouble at the local teashop; the innocent one takes the blame, and spends the succeeding years, in the course of which he marries and loses a famous actress, inherits and loses a large fortune, and goes as a dancing partner to a Paris cabaret, trying to live it down. Hitchcock gets jubilantly to work on this very raw stuff, expressing with clever conjunction of shots, with superimposition, double exposure, dissolves, the moving camera, and all his bag of technical tricks, the feelings of loneliness, bitterness, and nausea which his characters might be expected to enjoy; he even tries to give the thing symbolic weight by sending his hero to perdition down the moving staircase of tube station and the descending shaft of a mansion flat lift. I have never seen such an interesting, production of rubbish nor a clever film which deserved quite so little praise.

If Mr. Hitchcock would rid himself of the modern delusion that it is enough for an artist to give a perfect expression of any subject – the feelings of a cat sitting on a garbage can, the smell of over-ripe bananas, in a broken basket on a dusty street — he would become a film producer of considerable quality in the world. He has originality. He has a fine economy of detail. He has made himself independent of words with a strongly developed pictorial sense. Some day he may surprise us all, and himself among the number, by making a picture that is as good in its conception as in its execution. And when Hitchcock sets to work on real film material, real artist's material, there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world, who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.