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The Times (23/Jun/2012) - Hitch's debut



Hitch's debut

'You must remember," Alfred Hitchcock told me in 1975, "that early on, I had no intention of becoming a film director. I was content designing the titles for silent movies, illustrating the dialogue cards, and contributing to the art direction and sometimes the screenplay. It never occurred to me to be a die-reck-tor."

But of course, become one he did, and now, 32 years after his death at the age of 80, the British Film Institute is offering The Genius of Hitchcock, a five-month tribute, as part of the London 2012 Festival. Early in this ambitious celebration, the BFI is presenting the world premiere of a newly restored version of Hitchcock's first movie -- The Pleasure Garden, produced in 1925.

But, as he described it for me, that movie happened because of several unforeseen circumstances -- a series of fortuitous accidents. In 1920, Hitchcock was 21. After holding a variety of jobs, he went to work as a sketch artist at the London branch of Paramount Pictures in Islington, travelling each day from his family home in Leytonstone.

The employment system was not as specialised as in the American movie business: people in English studios performed multiple tasks on productions, wherever they could be used. In addition to drafting designs, therefore, Hitchcock helped to outline the set decorations and to polish the dialogue for a dozen pictures. But film directors had the ultimate authority, and much better salaries. "Of course Hitchcock wanted to be a director," recalled the producer Michael Balcon, who took over the Islington studio after Paramount withdrew.

"Hitch had the talent, the ambition and the necessary experience. But it wasn't easy to get him, or any other young man, launched in so important a job as directing, because financial backers were wary of promoting a mere assistant."

Hitchcock's opportunity came by default. In addition to studio work in London, he worked on films made at the great UFA studios in Berlin, where Balcon had deals for several joint ventures. But the inefficiency and sexual escapades of Graham Cutts, Balcon's foremost director, were compromising the German shooting schedules and budgets.

In late 1924 and early 1925, for example, as assistant to Cutts, Hitchcock virtually saved the production of The Blackguard. "It was chaotic," Hitchcock recalled. Hitch always valued order, planning and discipline in movie-making. "So I decided to simplify the sets for the sake of cost. I then went to Cutts and said: 'Put your camera here,' and 'You'll shoot from there,' and so on, for every scene. This did not go down well with him but my decisions were good, and Balcon was pleased."

At the same time, Hitchcock learnt a great deal from the technical methods and innovative styles of UFA's filmmakers including Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. After several sojourns in Germany, he was also fluent in the language.

And so Balcon, disenchanted with Graham Cutts, started Hitchcock's directorial career: "I arranged to have Hitch direct his first two pictures in Germany, not only because of the resistance to his becoming a director in London, but also because he had done superb work there."

Hitchcock's assignment was The Pleasure Garden, based on a book by Oliver Sandys, the pseudonym of novelist Marguerite Jervis. In the summer of 1925, Hitchcock with Alma Reville, who was his assistant and editor, and the screenwriter, Eliot Stannard, left for the Continent. The Sicilian cinematographer Gaetano Ventimiglia joined them in northern Italy, where exterior scenes were filmed before they shot interiors at the Emelka Studios, Munich.

To ensure American distribution of the picture, Balcon had imported two glamorous Hollywood stars, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty. Miles Mander and John Stuart were the well-known British actors in the cast, and non-speaking extras were engaged as the need arose. Stannard, who had already written 118 movie scripts, submitted a tightly focused screenplay about two music hall dancers in London and their romantic adventures. The melodramatic climax, set in tropical Africa, included scenes of murder, guilt and madness.

"I was terrified at giving instructions to my Hollywood stars," Hitchcock recalled. "Time and again I asked Alma if I was doing the right thing. She put my mind at ease." So began an historic professional and personal relationship.

Hitchcock and Alma Reville were married in London in December 1926, and she became his lifelong muse, critic and cook, quick to make tough decisions in art and life. Unlike the shy and insecure young Hitchcock, who was self-conscious about his appearance and his family background "in trade", Alma (from a genteel Nottingham family) appeared gentle and passive. But she was nothing of the sort.

The Pleasure Garden was troubled from the outset. Film stock was confiscated by Italian customs; extras wandered off; the summer was terrifically hot; and the studio ceilings in Munich, made of glass to augment the light, were torture.

Hitchcock knew that his professional future depended on this production. He employed double printing and startling dissolves to represent alcoholic dementia; he put hard questions to Stannard that frequently resulted in script improvements; and he linked the title not only to the name of a theatre but also to the locus of primitive sexual licence in the jungle -- hence his insistence on the Edenic snake wrapped round a tree, his design for the original title cards. Hitch took technical risks and hoped that Balcon would approve. The producer had no objections.

Stannard became the primary screenwriter of all nine Hitchcock silents. For The Pleasure Garden, Stannard provided the structure of two sets of characters placed in romantic triangles, a motif he and Hitchcock soon repeated in The Lodger. But the energy and striking visuals of the Garden was due entirely to the director, whose technique and talent for visual storytelling were brought to bold sequences involving seduction, violence and boudoir sex.

The picture opens as barelegged showgirls hurry down a spiral staircase on to the stage of the Pleasure Garden Theatre, where they cavort with wild abandon. We see the men in the audience leering, using opera glasses for a better view of the sexy chorines. (The theatre setting and the motif of voyeurism regularly occur regularly in Hitchcock's later work.) The action is kinetic, the dancing spirited: this scene -- indeed, the entire picture -- has always wanted better music than the organ solos that often accompany silent movies.

For the BFI's restoration, the composer Daniel Patrick Cohen has paid special attention to the structure of the movie, as well as to the shifting moods of each sequence. Written for 12 instruments, Cohen's score reflects a sharp awareness of how music should support (and not overwhelm) a silent film.

Robin Baker, the head curator at the BFI, confirms that this restored version of The Pleasure Garden contains scenes recently discovered in prints distributed worldwide. "Once the restoration was complete, I felt I was watching a new Hitchcock film," says Baker. "The narrative is more cohesive, the characters more clearly motivated, the symbolism more remarkable, the tints and tones fresh and of very high quality. There are now, for example, scenes of Patsy [Valli] with Jill [Geraghty], and scenes between Patsy and the Sideys [her landlords] that provide a better understanding of these people. There are no radical plot changes in the restoration, but there is enough to make this a different experience from what [the film] has been up to now."

When Balcon screened The Pleasure Garden in London in early 1926, the consensus was almost uniformly positive. "A powerful and interesting story [that] promises well for Hitchcock's future efforts," proclaimed the trade journal Bioscope. But Balcon's distributors were lukewarm, claiming the movie's "sordid" content would alienate British audiences. By this time, he had already signed Hitchcock to direct a second film in Germany and then a third in London. But to keep the moneymen satisfied, Balcon shelved The Pleasure Garden until after the 1927 press screening of another Hitchcock-Stannard film, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.

And with that wildly successful thriller, Alfred Hitchcock was on his way to directorial stardom.