Alfred Hitchcock, one of the first directors to establish his personality as a brand, has always been a part of the zeitgeist. The most famous director is having a very good year.
It was just last August that his 1958 film "Vertigo" displaced "Citizen Kane" at the pinnacle of the every-ten-year list of the greatest movies ever made conducted by the venerable British magazine "Sight and Sound." And his personal life -- his fetish for the cool blonde whose refined appearance masks vivid sexuality -- inspired two movies, HBO's "The Girl," with Toby Jones as the master and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, and "Hitchcock," starring Anthony Hopkins as Hitch, Helen Mirren as a reimagined Alma Hitchcock, and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. (At least if you believe that, as long as you spell his name right, it's good publicity. Otherwise we might not count "The Girl" and "Hitchcock" in the plus column.)
Certainly the carefully-orchestrated release of his nine surviving silent films, freshly restored by the British Film Institute National Archive, is burnishing his already polished reputation. ("The Mountain Eagle," his second film, made in 1926, is considered to be a lost film. We eagerly await its rediscovery in some overlooked closet or basement.) Cinephiles around the world are gathering to watch the movies, made between 1925 and 1929, in venues from coast to coast.
The first United States performances were held in San Francisco under the auspices of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, at the venerable 1922 movie palace the Castro, on June 14, 15, and 16th. Following the Silent Film Festival's most excellent tradition, the movies were shown with live musical accompaniment, ranging from solo piano to the five-member Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. UPDATE: Next up: The Los Angeles County Museum starts the series Thursday, June 27, running through July 13.
At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, artistic director Anita Monga introduced the opening-night film, "Blackmail" (perversely the last of the Hitchcock 9, chronologically), by saying that she had asked to be a presenter of the series from the very first moment she heard of the project, over three years ago. The 1929 "Blackmail" is one of the most classically Hitchcockian of the silents in its criminal setting, motifs, and use of suspense -- not to mention the first use of a chase sequence around a famous location, in this instance the British Museum. ("Blackmail" also exists in a part-talkie version, in which, bizarrely, the Czech actress Anny Ondra mouthed words voiced just off-camera by the American actress Joan Barry.) The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (piano, clarinet, cello, trumpet, and violin) provided a rousing score that complemented the perfect little film and galvanized the capacity crowd. It's a movie that I've seen several times before, but the BFI's glowing restoration (from the original negative) was a revelation.
Saturday's marathon showcased the diversity of Hitchcock's early work, when he was finding his way and working in many different genres before finding and establishing his niche. "Champagne" (1928), starring the somewhat stolid though beloved British star Betty Balfour, is a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale of a madcap heiress who is forced to become a nightclub employee when her fortune disappears. The solo piano accompaniment was provided by Judith Rosenberg, the principal pianist for the Pacific Film Archive (where she'll be accompanying the Hitchcock 9 when they unspool there from August 16 to August 31).