Watching Alfred Hitchcock
I’ve been meaning for a long time to look more closely into the early films directed by one of my favorites, Alfred Hitchcock. Most of us are familiar with his later classics: “North by Northwest,” ‘The Birds,” “Psycho,” and “Vertigo” surely among them. But Hitchcock didn’t get to America until 1940, when he directed “Rebecca;” he had learned his craft directing more than 20 films in Great Britain before that time, going all the way back to the era of the silent cinema.
Most of those early films are in general circulation and can be fairly easily (and cheaply) viewed. They are fascinating, especially the silent movies, showing Hitchcock as a very young man — he was born in England in 1899 — who already possesses a singular vision behind the camera. His earliest films have been lost, but his third film and first thriller, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog,” made in 1926 survives. As one critic writes, in spite of certain conventions, it is visually clever and “is virtually a textbook for Hitchcock’s later work” with its theme focused on an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime.
“The Ring” from 1927, another silent film, also sparkles with inventive direction including the director’s good use of close-ups of his actors. His last complete silent film, “The Manxman” (1929), apparently has met with little critical praise, but its admittedly melodramatic tale of love and guilt — magnificently photographed on the Isle of Man — nonetheless is sustained by some compelling moments from Hitchcock.
Moving into the early talkies, Hitchcock oversaw several notable films with his growing craft and confidence, digging into a theme of deception, particularly among those of law and order who prove false in “Blackmail” (1929) and later in the unusual “Rich and Strange” (1932) exploring the extremes of life and death. For those accustomed only thinking of Hitchcock only in a master of suspense, some of these films will come as quite a surprise. Several are light comedies, and as mentioned earlier, a melodrama, and yet few are boring or unviewable for most modern audiences.
Several collections of these early films may be found in circulation, and libraries will be a good source to find many. Online are several multi-CD sets, reasonably priced and rewarding for those who would like to sample a part of the Hichcock canon they don’t know. It’s fun to see the director’s recurring techniques, from the swooping overhead camera shots to the blurring of sound between a woman’s scream and a train’s whistle to the presence of birds (always a sign of chaos). And you can also spot Hitchcock himself in many of the films with the cameo appearances that many viewers came to expect in each later movie.
There are several books about Hitchcock’s films and several biographies which provide good overviews of his life and work. Among them are Donald Spoto’s “The Dark Side of Genius,” “Hitchcock Piece By Piece” by Laurent Bouzereau and Patricia Hitchcock, “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light” by Patrick McGilligan and “Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews.”