First, a bit of background. Alfred Hitchcock started working in film production in London, and later Germany, as a title-card designer. After five years in the business, he had risen to become both a writer and director. It was in this early period that he married his assistant director, Alma Reville, who would become a lifelong collaborator. Their only child, Patricia (who would appear in a few of Hitchcock’s Hollywood films, most famously Strangers on a Train), was born in 1928.
Second, a confession. I was mildly dreading these first films. Despite writing my dissertation on the Franco-American film trade and the European film industry in the 1940s (and discussing the enormous impact the talkies had on the industry as a whole), I haven’t actually seen that many silent movies. Oh, sure, some Keaton, some Chaplin, many of the French masterpieces, but not in a long time, and I hadn’t been particularly interested in seeing more. [Side note: Keaton had it all over Chaplin.]
So, it was much to my surprise that I actually thoroughly enjoyed this review of Hitchcock’s silent period. It’s truly incredible how much atmosphere and character can come through without dialogue. Even the films that were less interesting in terms of story had visual elements that make them worth watching at least once. And, if you are a Hitchcock fan, you’ll see many of the familiar themes and elements that recur in his later work.
If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.
—Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
Unfortunately, a number of his first films are not available for home viewing today, so my viewing odyssey began with The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). This suspense thriller was his first critical and commercial success, and used what would become a trademark theme: the wrong man. Or is he? As in Suspicion, Hitchcock leaves the audience guessing for much of the film.
The basic plot is that “The Avenger” is on the loose and killing blondes. When a mysterious lodger (played by screen idol Ivor Novello for the Gosford Park fans out there) shows up at a London boarding house, he is soon suspected of being the serial killer. Oh, did I mention the daughter of the house is blonde? And that her boyfriend is the detective in charge of the Avenger case?
The look and feel is quintessential Hitchcock and it was certainly my favorite of the silents. I highly recommend it.
The next few movies represent a real departure from the precedent set by The Lodger. However, while very different settings and genres (including comedies, melodramas, and even sports), they all share a certain mathematical precision.
1 scandalous divorce + 1 paparazzi-shy incognito bride + 1 suspicious mother-in-law = Easy Virtue (1927)
2 boxers + 1 girl = The Ring (1927)
1 widower + 4 uninterested spinsters + 1 interested housekeeper = The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
1 heiress + 1 male gigolo + 1 concerned father + 1 mysterious stranger = Champagne (1928)
2 best friends + 1 girl = The Manxman (1929)
There were no real clunkers here, and I am happy to have watched them all, but they were a tad predictable. I think it boils down to what type of film you are looking for. A comedy? Try The Farmer’s Wife or Champagne. Melodrama? Choose Easy Virtue or The Manxman. A love story with a heart of gold? Definitely The Ring.
Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.
—Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)
The last film I watched for this week is Blackmail (1929). The reason I included it here, despite being a sound film, is that it began as a silent, and in many ways still straddles the line. The decision was made mid-production to convert it to sound and, in a real-life Singin’ in the Rain scenario, the lead role had to be overdubbed on set due to Anny Ondra’s thick accent. This is also why the first eight minutes or so are completely silent, despite showing multiple conversations.
In Blackmail, Hitchcock returns to form with an intriguing thriller. As in The Lodger, our blonde is dating a detective but finds herself attracted to another man, an artist. However, the twist here is that the woman is actually the killer. Before you think I’ve spoiled the whole movie, rest assured, the plot is driven by what happens afterward. You see, the woman, Alice White, actually kills the artist after he tries to rape her. Watching her hand grasp for something from behind the bed curtains and land on a knife on the table brought to mind both Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder and Janet Leigh in Psycho.
Unfortunately, someone has seen Alice go in and out of the apartment. And that’s where the fun begins. As she struggles with her guilt, Alice learns that she left her gloves at the scene and only one was found by her boyfriend. Hitchcock clearly enjoys playing with the new medium of sound here, as in the scene where the busybody neighbor is talking incessantly about the murder, but Alice blocks out everything but the repetition of the word knife. Blackmail also features the first of the director’s classic chase sequences, this time inside and to the top of the dome of the British Museum.
If you’re a Hitchcock fan, or even if you’re not, this is well worth your time.
And now the awards!
Best Opening Shot: The close-up of the woman screaming in The Lodger
Best Opening Sequence: The carnival rides and games in The Ring
Best Special Effect: The glass ceiling used to show the lodger’s feet through the floor as the family below “hears” him nervously pacing in The Lodger
Best Jump Cut: Going from Alice White in a haze of guilt stumbling across a seemingly dead homeless man and about to scream to the screaming landlady discovering the artist’s body in Blackmail
Best Callback Shot: The view of the room through the bottom of a champagne glass at the opening and close of Champagne
Best Sight Gag: The drunken man staggering down the hallway of a remarkably stable ship just moments before everyone is staggering due to stormy seas in Champagne
Best Angle: The camera looking down the staircase while a gloved hand moves along the banister as the lodger slowly creeps down each floor in The Lodger
Best Intertitles: Easy Virtue, including the two gems “Who is this woman who you have pitchforked into this family?” and “Shoot! There’s nothing left to kill.”
Best Vocabulary Builder: The Manxman (Admit it, do you know offhand what that title means? And if that doesn’t convince you: deemster)
Best Setting: The Isle of Man in The Manxman [Side note: A Manxman is an inhabitant of the Isle of Man.]
Favorite Character: The put-upon manservant in The Farmer’s Wife
Favorite Shot to Convey Plot: The facial expressions of the telephone operator overhearing the marriage proposal and acceptance in Easy Virtue
Favorite Shot to Show Time Passing: Bubbly champagne being poured and gradually going flat while the boxer waits for his wife in The Ring (hmm, could that have any other meaning?)
The “Mitt Romney” Zinger Award: “The trouble with you is, you are too fond of dressing your mutton in lamb fashion.” from The Farmer’s Wife
The “Nick and Nora” Boozehound Award: Champagne
The “Hedley Lamarr” Award (tie): Larita Filton in Easy Virtue and Araminta Dench in The Farmer’s Wife
The Jezebel Award for Most Dramatic Entrance: Larita crashing her mother-in-law’s party in Easy Virtue
The Birth of a Nation Shock and Awe Award: The use of the n-word in the intertitles of The Ring (sad, but true)
Hitchcock 1920s Filmography*
The Pleasure Garden (1925)
The Mountain Eagle (1927)
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Easy Virtue (1927)
The Ring (1927)
The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
The Manxman (1929)
*Features by Release Year
All of the films I watched, except Champagne, are available on DVD at Netflix. The Manxman is also available on Netflix streaming, with a gorgeous transfer from Studio Canal. I highly recommend seeking out the MGM Premiere collection version of The Lodger, a film with particularly bad transfers out there.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts. Have you seen any of the above films? Do you enjoy silent movies?