Arts & Events

The Hitchcock Nine Kicks off the SF Silent Film Festival

By Gar Smith
Friday June 14, 2013 - 02:49:00 PM

There's a lot to shout about at this year's edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. SFSFF gets underway this week with a rare and not-to-be-missed three-day extravaganza of films by Alfred J. Hitchcock. But this is Hitchcock with a twist.

Before his fame crossed the Atlantic, Hitchcock was earning his stripes in London as a director of silent films. In the course of these early years, Hitchcock directed ten films. Today, only nine survive but – thanks to the efforts of the British Film Institute – all of these recovered and restored classics (some well-known to film buffs; others previously believed "lost") now are being seen for the first time in generations.

The Hitchcock Nine will be screening at San Francisco's Castro Theater from June 14-16, with live musical accompaniment provided by the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and a slew of guest soloists. This promises to be a great beginning for the 18th edition of an internationally celebrated festival that has screened more than 170 rare silent classics. 

The Genius of Hitchcock 

It was in April 1926 that the British press proclaimed 26-year-old Hitchcock "the youngest director in the world." The occasion for this accolade was the release of "The Pleasure Garden," a film that one London critic raved "astonished everyone with [its] freshness and power." Hitchcock grabbed the audiences' eyes with the very first frame, stepping out in style with a parade of marching legs as a long line of chorus girls prance down a spiral staircase. 

The work behind the restoration process is exemplified by the effort to reconstruct this film. There were only five surviving copies in the BFI's archives. Four were fragile silver nitrate prints and there appeared to be two different versions of the film. BFI technicians reconstructed a consensus version that closely resembled Hitchcock's original edit and then spent several months gingerly scanning 20 reels of ancient nitrate film rolls – more than 3 1/3 miles of film. 

In addition to two familiar classics -- Blackmail (an ironic and wickedly twisted film noir), and The Lodger (which the director later called "The first true 'Hitchcock movie'") – the SFSFF is also screening Downhill (the story of a young man's humiliation and ruin in a world of conniving women), Easy Virtue (a Noel Coward play boldly turned inside out), The Manxman (two boyhood friends drawn into a tragic love triangle on the Isle of Manx), The Ring (a melodrama set in the world of boxing), and two romantic comedies, Champagne (a silly escapade featuring a spoiled, ditzy flapper) and The Farmer's Wife (a crusty small village landowner who disastrously attempts to court a number of prospective brides only to find "true love" hidden before his eyes.) 

Every film is filled with Hitchcockian themes (dark nights, duplicity, mistaken motives, hidden identities, lies, betrayals and beautiful, endangered blondes) and adorned with inspired camera tricks. In Blackmail, the shadows from window panes cast patterns on the wall that suggest the bars of a jail cell. At one point, a character rises to her feet and, as she does, the shadows fall over body, framing her face and appearing to form a noose over her throat. 

Hitchcock called silent films "the purest form of cinema." 

There's much to admire and marvel at in this collection. It's a near-miracle that these films survived over the decades and it's a mark of Hitchcock's art that (with the exception of the superficial trifle, Champagne) they still have the staying power to capture, unnerve and thrill modern audiences more than 80 years after they were first screened.