Young Hitchcock

This year, a Leytonstone-born Londoner born 113 years ago has been all the rage. The subject of two biopics, "The Girl" (which aired on HBO a few weeks back) and "Hitchcock" (which premieres at AFI Fest on Thursday), and the director of the newly named greatest film of all time "Vertigo," he's a man who's been endlessly homaged, ripped off, and paid tribute to for decades -- of course, we're talking about Alfred Hitchcock.

The son of a greengrocer in East London, Hitchcock began working at an advertising company as a teenager, and submitted a number of twisty, witty short stories to the in-house magazine. This soon led to him moving into film, designing title cards for silents, and within five years he was directing. After a faltering start, with films that were cancelled, lost, or flops, the director had a major hit with thriller "The Lodger," and it was that genre that would provide him with his greatest successes over the next 50 years or so.

This week sees a sparkly new Hitchcock Blu-ray box set released featuring a number of the director's best-loved films, and to commemorate the occasion, we thought it seemed like the perfect time to go back and cast an eye over the (nearly) complete Hitchcock filmography. Being about as prolific as you could ask for, Hitch made over fifty films over the years, and as such, we've split the feature into two. Part one, today, takes a look at the director's work in silents, and his early British talkies and his career before he crossed over to Hollywood debut. Tomorrow, we'll kick off with "Rebecca" and track the films that saw him achieve global success, become a household name, and pick up five Best Director nominations at the Academy Awards (but, famously, never the win) Take a look at those prolific early years below, and check back tomorrow for much more.

The Pleasure Garden
"The Pleasure Garden" (1925)
Essentially the director’s feature debut (previous efforts “No. 13” and “Always Tell Your Wife” were, respectively, unfinished or uncredited, and have since been partially or wholly lost), had 1925’s “The Pleasure Garden” not been made by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s unlikely it would be of particular interest today. However in retrospect there is always the desire to comb through these early works to find glimmers of future genius and to trace the evolution of those preoccupations with which he would later became associated, and in this regard the film doesn’t completely disappoint. It’s a competently handled melodrama with some comedic and romantic elements, and one macabre murder sequence that will have amateur Hitchcock analysts nodding sagely and scribbling into their notebooks. The story is slight: Patsy, a goodhearted chorus girl befriends Jill, an out-of-luck performer who, as her star rises, reveals herself as unworthy of both Patsy’s friendship and the love of her trusting fiance. Patsy and Jill’s nice fiance are clearly destined from their initial meet-cute (they fall over one another in one of the film’s looser, more spontaneous-feeling scenes), even if their good natures prevent them from seeing that, until Jill marries someone else and Patsy’s husband turns out to be a deranged, murderous adulterer. It’s nicely performed, if occasionally marred by silent-movie histrionics and a sort of casual imperialist racism that was unremarkable at the time, but is ugly to a contemporary eye. So undoubtedly, a solid directorial beginning, but we shouldn’t overstate its importance either -- you may be surprised by its watchability for a silent film made over 85 years ago, but then this was the also the year of “Battleship Potemkin” and Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” -- silent cinema, or, indeed “cinema” as it was known then, had already reached a pitch of sophistication and artistry elsewhere, and compared to those bona-fide milestones, “The Pleasure Garden” is but a trinket. [C]

The Lodger
"The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog" (1927)
"The Lodger" was the first feature to put Hitchcock on the map. And what makes the film stand out now is the extent to which it feels like the arrival of the director, fully-formed, with many of the stylistic tics and thematic links that would come to play over the next half-century or so already in place (right down to the first appearance of his soon-to-be-trademark cameo, which came about only because an extra failed to show up). Based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, it's set in a London plagued by a serial killer known as The Avenger, who's picking off blonde women around town. Model Daisy (June -- yes, just June) is unconcerned, more interested in the curious, but dreamy new tenant Jonathan Drew (original heartthrob Ivor Novello) in her mother's house. The pair are soon drawn to each other, but could Jonathan be the killer? Fresh from his time in Germany, where he spent time observing Murnau and Lang, Hitchcock had picked up an expressionist trick or two. The gorgeous sepia fog is, as the title might suggest, as much a character as anything else in the film, shadows come into play in a big way, and he's starting to experiment with the camera, pushing in on the characters, and filming directly down staircases in a way that directly prefigures "Vertigo." Perhaps most interesting of all is his use of casting. Novello (played of late by Jeremy Northam in "Gosford Park") was a clean-cut star of music, stage and screen, and Hitchcock is immediately toying with the audience's expectations by placing the actor in such an ambiguous part. He couldn't possibly be a killer, could he? He's much too handsome for that... One suspects that if he had free rein (the shoot wasn't a happy experience), the ending might have been more ambivalent, but even so, this remains the foundation on which the rest of the director's career was based on. [B+]
Hitchcock Cameo: 0:03, sitting at a desk in the newsroom.

The Ring
"The Ring" (1927)
The second of three 1927 features from Hitchcock (they stacked them high and sold them cheap back then) “The Ring” also marks a definite move forward in terms of the director’s shooting style and storytelling ability. In fact it’s the only film on which Hitch takes full and sole writer’s credit in addition to directing, but if you think that might make it the most quintessentially Hitchcockian of films, let us disavow you: “The Ring” is a straight-up melodrama in which no one gets murdered, blackmailed, driven insane, mistaken for a criminal, or in any way embroiled in a sinister plot. Instead, it’s a simple love triangle story: Mabel is a ticket-seller in a carnival-style boxing ring where her fiance, Jack “One Round” Sander challenges all comers. She catches the eye of the debonair championship boxer Bob Corby, who offers Jack a position as his sparring partner so he can continue to pursue Mabel. Mabel and Jack marry, but Mabel’s affair with Bob continues until she eventually leaves Jack. In true sports drama fashion, Jack works his way up the bill until he faces Bob in the ring for the championship, and during the climactic match Mabel realises she loves him and rushes to his corner in time to restore his confidence and get him the KO.  So yeah, the plot’s not hugely thrilling, but what is exciting is to watch Hitchcock’s growing confidence in the medium -- there are moments here that don’t feel just like a director establishing his style, but like classical Hollywood filmmaking technique being forged. So there are really elegant examples of time ellipses -- from the fizz of freshly poured champagne flattening in the glasses, to a fat reel of entrance tickets getting smaller and smaller through a series of dissolves.  And there’s comedy here too, such as when a side character takes the coat of the latest challenger, and doesn’t even bother setting it down -- instead we stay on him as the brief fight happens offscreen before the inevitably stunned, defeated challenger reels back into his coatsleeves, seconds later. Lillian Hall-Davis, with whom Hitch would reteam, does an admirable job of making the mercurial Mabel somewhat sympathetic, but mainly this is a film to be enjoyed for its details -- the symbolism of the various "rings," the unusual framing and the nascent special effects (at one point a scene is played out for a while in a reflection on water; in another, a character’s drunkenness is denoted by a distorted POV shot). It’s not without flaws, but if you can get by the racism of the opening scene (and the N-word that crops up egregiously in one of the intertitles) “The Ring” is a diverting pit-stop on any journey through Hitchcock. [B-]

"Downhill" (1927)
Probably the least engaging of Hitchcock’s three 1927 films, “Downhill” stars popular leading man Ivor Novello (who also co-wrote the play upon which it is based), as Roddy, the world’s oldest public schoolboy, who takes the fall for a less well-to-do friend who gets a local barmaid pregnant. Expelled and cast out by his father, Roddy finds work as an actor, receives an unexpected windfall and marries faithless leading lady Julia. She strings him along until his money runs out, at which point he becomes a gigolo in France, before hitting rock bottom in a crummy boarding house in Marseilles, prior to a sudden reconciliation with his father and an “all’s right with the world” ending. Now, there are films that withstand the passage of time and retain relevance despite intervening decades and changing fashions. But “Downhill” features a plot driven primarily by the mechanics of the English class system of the 1920s, and as such, it feels so archaic it creaks. The “lower classes,” from the barmaid, to the guilty schoolfriend who is on a scholarship, to the actress wife, are grasping and selfish and faithless, while our high-born rich hero is the repository of only good and noble impulses. With all due respect to the mores and morals of bygone days, it sticks in our craw that, as though to symbolise the depths to which he has sunk, we linger on our hero suffering the indignity of taking the underground -- horrors! Stylistically, however, there are some interesting flourishes, from the scene which starts with Roddy looking refined in a tux, only to reveal he’s a waiter, only then to reveal he’s a waiter in stage play; to some unusual POV shots and hallucinatory scenes; to the notable scarcity of intertitles. But it’s just too ossified a plot to be redeemed by a few positives. It’s all deus ex machina, happenstance and nobody much learning anything about anything except that: 1. working for a living is bad 2. ugly old ladies are enough to trigger a nervous breakdown and 3. there is no greater achievement in life than being able to play rugby for the "old school." Honestly we can’t find much that this contributes to the Hitchcock back catalogue -- watch and be glad it’s 2012.  [D+]

The Farmer's Wife
"The Farmer's Wife" (1928)
Like 1927, 1928 was a three-film year for Hitchcock, kicking off with “The Farmer’s Wife.” It’s a strange film in the context of the man’s career, a not-terribly successful comedy that relies on some rather cheap narrative tricks to make its predictable plot play out the way it must. Minta (Lillian Hall-Davis, showing a different side from the role she played in “The Ring” and proving the film’s high point in the process) is the loyal housekeeper for a country farmer, Samuel Sweetland. We know they’re "country" because of the awkward vernacular the intertitles are written in (“I don’t mind they pillowy women” and “… us’ll write a list…”) which just comes across as patronizing. Anyway, he’s a widower and following the marriage of his beloved daughter, he starts to think of marrying again. Minta, despite clearly wanting the position for herself, helps him make a list of potential wives, to whom he then proposes in grossly unromantic fashion, and is unable to fathom it when they turn him down one by one. Only when he has no options left does he notice Minta, who accepts him and gets to take off her housekeeper’s apron and put on a shiny dress. It’s a film that, even for its day and genre, is slight, and with the comedy not delivering and the romance, well, unromantic, there’s not a lot here to get your teeth into. And even within the canon it seems one of Hitch’s less inspired works, with the confidence and fluidity in evidence in some of the previous year’s work nowhere in evidence. In fact, here some of those tricks, like semi-dissolves to show Sweetland’s "imaginings," simply irritate because they’re so heavy-handed. Hall-Davis is good and underplays nicely, but really that serves more to throw into unflattering contrast the telegraphed performances of her co-stars. Hitchcock’s silents are, in general, less substantial entries in his CV, but even within that context, “The Farmer’s Wife” feels vanishingly insignificant. [D]