The Pleasure Garden (1925, Alfred Hitchcock)

PleasureGarden

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A pair of chorus-line dancers experience conflicting fortunes in their careers and in their love lives…

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that while life must be lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. On that basis, let’s see if we can understand how Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature film as a director – The Pleasure Garden, shot in 1925 – came into being and how it began a career that has had such a lasting impact. We’ll get to the movie itself in due course, but first a diversion…

In June 2019, almost 120 years after Hitchcock’s birth, I set out to explore the area he will have known as a child. However, when I arrived in east London I was confronted by something that can’t have been there in 1899. Leytonstone Underground Station (opened 1856) is decorated with 17 bold, colourful and rather delightful murals celebrating the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. They adorn the walls of the sloping tunnels that lead from the street level to the ticket office, and are made up of a total of 80,000 tiny coloured tiles. Everyone but me was ignoring them now, being more concerned with their commute and perhaps numbed to them by overfamiliarity, but to a newcomer these mosaics are incredibly striking pieces of art.

LeytonstoneMuralPleasureGarden1

They were commissioned by the local authorities and produced by an arts company called Greenwich Mural Workshop, then unveiled on 3 May 2001 to rather belatedly mark the centenary of Hitch’s birth. Fourteen of them represent specific films from throughout his career, so one by one I admired imaginatively dramatic scenes from The Pleasure Garden (pictured above), The Skin Game, Number Seventeen, Rebecca, Suspicion, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.

The remaining three murals are especially apt for our purposes here. In one, for example, Hitchcock’s childhood connection to Leytonstone is represented by a young Alfred outside his family’s shop in around 1906, dressed as a soldier for Empire Day celebrations. This image seems to have been based on a rare surviving photograph of Hitchcock’s father and older brother (both called William) taken circa 1900.

The other two mosaics, meanwhile, see Hitch later in life working on his films – in one he’s with Marlene Dietrich, who starred in his 1950 thriller Stage Fright; in another he’s calling action on the set of The Skin Game (pictured below). Stretching from his childhood to the peak of his Hollywood powers, these murals raise an obvious question. How did a working-class London lad born just 140 days before the end of the 19th century develop into the most famed moviemaker in history?

LeytonstoneMuralHitchcockDIrecting

‘I had no intention of becoming a film director, you know,’ Alfred Hitchcock said in the 1960s. ‘It was quite a surprise to me.’ For one thing, cinema was still a new concept when he was born in 1899. The world’s first film studio, inventor Thomas Edison’s Black Maria in New Jersey, had only opened six years earlier – and that was to produce motion pictures that could only be viewed on a Kinetoscope (a ‘peephole’ device used by one person at a time). French visionaries the Lumière brothers were the first people to put on public screenings of films – a set-up recognisable as modem cinema – from December 1895. Edison began similar showings in New York four months later, while the US’s first dedicated cinema, on Canal Street in New Orleans, opened in July 1896. Another Frenchman, George Méliès, may have passed a career total of 200 short films in 1899, producing ground-breaking material that dabbled with special effects and tricks, but the art form was still astonishingly young and something of a novelty.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on a Sunday 13 August, in a flat above the Leytonstone greengrocers run by his parents, Emma Jane and William Hitchcock (the same shop depicted in the Leytonstone Station mural mentioned above). William Hitchcock didn’t live long enough to see his son succeed in the film industry but Emma survived until 1942, dying while Alfred was making the brilliantly seedy Shadow of a Doubt. She seems to have had a harsh side. When Alfred was young, she had a habit of making him stand at the foot of her bed for hours on end as a punishment, and she later stubbornly refused to leave England during the bombing of the Second World War. Perhaps this maternal steel explains why so many Hitchcock films feature strong, domineering, eccentric or vital-to-the-plot mothers. Think of the sinister Anna Sebastian in Notorious, the ambitious Jessie Stevens in To Catch a Thief, the kooky Clara Thornhill in North by Northwest, the distant Bernice Edgar in Marnie, the haughty Lydia Brenner in The Birds, or of course the ghostly presence of Mrs Bates in Psycho – characters who all appeared after Hitch’s own mother had died.

Alfred had siblings while growing up but still felt isolated, later describing his childhood as a lonely experience – in part because of his strict Catholic parents, in part because of his obesity. (He was never a slim chap. His mother, it seems, was a feeder.) In 1910, he began attending a Jesuit school in north London. He excelled academically and, he later said, developed a long-lasting fear of authority – a fear that had been seeded by an infamous incident earlier in life when his father arranged for Alfred to be locked up by the police as a punishment for misbehaving. ‘I don’t think the religious side of the Jesuit education impressed itself so much upon me as the strict discipline one endured at the time,’ he later told film critic Peter Bogdanovich.

An early ambition to be an engineer led to the teenage Alfred studying mechanics and electricity. But after his father’s death in 1914, he needed to earn some money so got a job as a technical clerk at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company near London Wall, where he also wrote some short stories for its in-house magazine. (The stories often contained themes and plot devices he would revisit in his movies, such as innocent people being accused of crimes.) Away from his day job, he also developed passions for art history, painting and the cinema, especially films starring comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This provides us with a nice connection: as the cultural commentator Kim Newman has pointed out, Hitchcock and Chaplin are the only genuine contenders for the title as the most influential Englishman in cinema history.

This enthusiasm for film was then given a release when Hitchcock speculatively sent some title-card designs to a new London-based film studio called Famous Players-Lasky and was hired in 1919. He was soon mentioned by name in The Times thanks to his impressive work with title cards, but in these hazy, embryonic days of the industry, being a jack of all trades was encouraged and Hitchcock – only just into his 20s – was quickly gaining experience in various production roles…

During my exploration of Hitchcock’s childhood stomping ground in June 2019, I left the station after admiring the murals and headed up to High Road Leytonstone, a busy main road that has changed a great deal since the 1890s. On the short walk there, I unexpectantly happened upon a large piece of graffiti on a wall on Harrington Road, which contains an image of Alfred Hitchcock smoking a cigar. Birds can be seen in the margins too.

LeytonstoneHitchcockGraffiti

After a few minutes’ walk south, I found 517 High Road Leytonstone. William Hitchcock’s greengrocers once stood here but was long ago demolished, and there’s now a gaudy Jet petrol station in its place. It was busy as I wandered across the small forecourt, with cars fighting for space and a gang of car-washers at work.

LeytonstoneHitchcockPetrolStation

An ignored blue plaque on the modern wall to the side of the petrol station’s shop is the only acknowledgment of the site’s link to Leytonstone’s most famous son.

LeytonstoneHitchcockBluePlaque

I then had a neat piece of happenstance. I was standing on the pavement outside the petrol station, checking over the photographs I’d taken, when I became aware of a woman calling out to me from a passing car. It was a colleague of mine from my day job: a lovely woman called Ellen, who lives in the area. She pulled into the petrol station and we had a chat. We had both unexpectedly been given the afternoon off (IT issues: don’t ask), so talked about how we were spending our sudden free time. I said I was doing research for a blog, and it turned out she knew her Hitchcock history. She told me about Hitchcock’s Home, an annual event held at the nearby St John’s Church. Over two evenings in the church’s graveyard, Hitchcock films are played onto big screens. At the most recent edition, in July 2018, they showed Rebecca and Notorious.

After parting from Ellen, I next turned my attention to a building a few metres away from the petrol station. In 2014, as part of a £9m renovation project by the local council, its outer walls were covered with large paintings of birds – an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s 1963 film. A bird motif is also evident on the nearby pavement, while I clocked that a building further up the adjacent Lynn Road is called Hitchcock Place. The building in which he was born may be long gone, but Alfred’s presence, it seems, is everywhere.

LeytonstoneHitchcockBirdsBuilding

Ensconced at Famous Players-Lasky and working on a succession of silent movies, Hitch was first given the chance to direct in 1921. However, the production of social drama Number 13 was chaotic and was abandoned after just a handful of scenes had been shot. Hitchcock later called it a ‘chastening experience’, but he never forgot the generosity of its star Clare Greet who had pumped her own money into the project: Hitch cast her a further six times before her death in 1939. Around this time he also stepped in at the last minute to co-direct a frivolous short called Always Tell Your Wife (1923) and had a stint working at Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam. He was in his element in Germany, already being a fan of Weimar Republic cinema. One of his favourite recent films had been Fritz Lang’s fantasy drama Der müde Tod (1921), and now he got the chance to watch close up as another great German director, FW Murnau (he of 1922’s vampire classic Nosferatu), directed The Last Laugh (1924). Hitchcock was gaining knowledge and experiences, and soaking up influences from all around him.

Then came two enormous developments in his life – one professional, one personal. Hitchcock moved across to a new company, later to be known as Gainsborough Pictures, which was run by the producer Michael Balcon. Balcon was only three years older than Hitch, and had a glittering career ahead of him that would include such classic British movies as Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Hitchcock’s own The 39 Steps (1935). At Gainsborough, Hitchcock designed sets, wrote scripts, and acted as a producer. He also met his future wife: the editor and screenwriter Alma Revile. As well as a romantic partner, she soon became his de facto first officer, working in a variety of roles (often uncredited) on many of his films. One witness who saw Hitchcock direct during the 1920s said that he had a habit of turning to Alma after a take and asking, ‘Was that all right?’ The couple had been born within a few hours of each other, and married in December 1926. Their only child, Patricia, followed in 1928 and she went on to appear in a few of her father’s movies. Towards the end of his life, at a celebratory dinner thrown by the American Film Institute on 7 March 1979, Hitchcock said that he wished to pay special tribute to four people who had given him affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration: an editor, a writer, a mother and a cook. Then came the punchline: ‘And their names are Alma Revile.’

After seeing the area where Hitchcock had been born, I doubled back north, past the turnoff for the underground station and past St John’s Church and into Leytonstone’s shopping area, all the way up to 692 Leytonstone High Road. The pub here on the corner with Aylmer Road has had several names over the years, but was renamed The Birds in Hitch’s honour in May 2017.

LeytonstoneHitchcockBirdsPub

The bar was virtually empty as I walked in, being mid-afternoon on a weekday, but it was an eccentric, cool-looking place. I had a poor-tasting beef burger and a very nice beer while I had a rest and considered Hitchcock’s legacy. It depends of course how you define it – does compilation Elstree Calling count? What about the German-language version of Murder!? – but it’s reasonable to claim he made 53 feature films in a 51-year directorial career. In Western cinema, he stands at the most famous and arguably most revered movie director of all time. But how did it begin? What was the spark of life in the primordial soup?

‘Sir Michael Balcon is really the man responsible for Hitchcock,’ Alfred once said, referring to his time at Gainsborough. ‘One day Balcon said that the director – I worked with the same director all the time – didn’t want me any more. I don’t know what the reason was, some political reason. And it was then that Balcon said, “How would you like to become a director?” I had been quite content at the time, writing scripts and designing. I enjoyed it very much.’ The project Balcon had in mind for his protégé was a co-production between Gainsborough and the German studio Emelka. It was an adaptation of a novel by Oliver Sandys (one of several pseudonyms used by the writer Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis).

Filming on The Pleasure Garden got underway in March 1925 on location in Italy. The cast featured two American stars brought over to Europe by Balcon, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, but it wasn’t an easy shoot. The budget ran low, forcing Hitchcock to borrow cash from several people – including his cast and Alma. He had to pay a fine before Italian customs officials would allow the precious film stock into the country. And there was reportedly an awkward incident when an actress refused to film a scene in water because it was her time of the month (the innocent Hitchcock had to have this problem explained to him). Some filming was carried out in at Villa d’Este on Lake Como, where Hitchcock and Alma would later have their honeymoon and several subsequent holidays. The production then wrapped in August at Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich.

The resulting film shows all the exuberance and enthusiasm of a debut – despite its melodramatic and simplistic storyline, The Pleasure Garden is full of Hitchcockian energy and invention. It’s often been tagged as a ‘backstage’ drama, and it’s true that early scenes are set in the sometimes harsh world of a West End theatre. But we soon move away from that into torrid, and even lurid, romantic entanglements.

A woman with little dance experience, Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), wants to be a showgirl so is given a try-out by a haughty producer called Oscar Hamilton (Georg H Schnell, who had appeared in Murnau’s Nosferatu). She attempts the Charleston and impresses, so is offered a gig at five pounds a week. ‘You know I’m better than that,’ she replies. ‘I’ll take 20.’ She quickly becomes the star of the show, but her new friend and fellow dancer Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) grows concerned that fame is going to her head – especially when Jill moves out of their shared flat, begins socialising with an aristo called Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg) and cheats on her abroad-on-business fiancé, Hugh (John Stuart, an actor with a career long enough to take in 1978’s Superman: The Movie). At the same time, Patsy grows close to Hugh’s colleague, the lonely bachelor Levet (Miles Mander); they later marry and take their honeymoon on – that’s right – Lake Como.

However, Levet then also goes overseas for his job and falls ill. When word reaches Patsy, she wants to go and see him but Jill refuses to loan her the cash for a boat ticket (‘Can’t do, Patsy – I’m spending everything on my trousseau. The Prince and I will be married soon.’) Eventually getting the funds from her kindly landlords, Patsy arrives in unnamed foreign climes and discovers that Levet has been sleeping with a local girl. She flees, and an embarrassed and angered Levet reacts by drowning his new girlfriend. Patsy and the jilted Hugh then find solace with each other and fall in love, but Levet suffers ghostly visions of his murdered girlfriend so resolves to kill Patsy too…

Hitch later called The Pleasure Garden ‘just an assignment’ and dismissed it by implication when he claimed his third feature, The Lodger, was the first true Hitchcock film. But it’s fascinating to us now for more reasons than it just being a famous director’s debut movie. The most obvious is simply that it’s a very watchable and charming piece of work in its own right: engaging, visually ambitious and – thanks to the soap-opera plotting – never dull. But it also comes so fully formed. The Pleasure Garden is no rough-and-ready, first-draft version of the Hitchcock brand. The term auteur – which denotes a director being the ‘author’ of a movie – wouldn’t come into mass usage in film criticism until the 1950s, but here is a 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock showcasing so many of his personal concerns and favourite techniques that would run throughout the next half-century of his career.

Hitchcock would one day be the benchmark for how to tell a story through specific points of view, for example – Rear Window is the classic instance, presenting its entire world through the perspective of James Stewart’s housebound photographer. In The Pleasure Garden, we get a taster of that formal device early on: as rows of chorus girls dance on stage, we see enraptured men on the front row and are invited to watch the girls through their lustful eyes. There’s more risqué-ness later on too, such as when the young and attractive Jill and Patsy unselfconsciously undress while getting ready for bed barely minutes after meeting. Hitchcock would never be too far away from potentially saucy moments like this – see Madeleine Carroll taking her tights off in The 39 Steps, or the famously Freudian gag that sees a train entering a tunnel just as two characters become amorous in North by Northwest.

And the seeds that will grow into later obsessions continue sprouting. Perhaps we can detect the director’s strict Jesuit schooling in a moment when he both presents and mocks religion in The Pleasure Garden: Jill prays before going to bed, while the more earthy Patsy watches on bemused. Faith and its implications would play a major role in I Confess, while you can detect Catholic guilt in many other films. But this theme rarely if ever dominated story. A few diversions into realism aside – The Wrong Man, Frenzy – Hitchcock was always a keen proponent of the idea that movies are escapism. They can be dramatic, they can be meaningful, but they should always be first and foremost entertaining. Later in his career, he and his collaborators excelled at Hollywood sheen and a vibrant, Vistavision veneer – think of the sunny To Catch a Thief, which positively radiates with beauty and luxury, or the 3D sophistication of Dial M for Murder. But this wasn’t an idea that had to evolve. His first film has a glamour all of its own, whether it’s the Art Deco decadence of the West End fantasies being created by Oscar Hamilton or the exotic Mediterranean locations. (Of course, viewers in the 21st century also get a thrill akin to opening a time-capsule. The Pleasure Garden is not only a film set in the mid-1920s. It was *made* in the mid-1920s. Those cloche hats are genuine, not postmodern costume design.)

All that’s missing from the Alfred Hitchcock collection of motifs is perhaps his most remarkable: a troubled, enigmatic, sexy yet icy-cool blonde with a dark past. But that aside, brilliantly, The Pleasure Garden sees the director’s personality and preferences splashed across every set-up, every frame, like a master painter with his own unique brushwork.

LeytonstoneHitchcockHotel

The final destination of my exploration of Leytonstone came after a 20-minute walk further north, via a footpath under the busy A12. On Whipps Cross Road, opposite a section of the ancient Epping Forest, I found the reasonably grand façade of the Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel. The establishment has no authentic connection to the great man himself, but it’s another example of east London commemorating his achievements. According to lettering painted onto a mirror in its small hallway, the hotel was opened on 27 August 1980 – just four months after Hitchcock’s death. Its bar is open to the public and has many photographs of Hitchcock and his leading actors on the walls. There’s also a framed copy of Alfred and Alma’s marriage certificate from 1928.

LeytonstoneHitchcockHotelWeddingCert

I bought a beer from a pretty barmaid who was clearly bored out of her skull with the laddish regulars gathered around the small bar, then I sat at an outside table, resting my weary feet and enjoying the breeze coming off the Leyton Flats section of the nearby forest. It had been a good day.

The term ‘silent film’ is a retronyn, only coming into parlance once we had films that *weren’t* silent. (A similar process has happened with ‘analogue watch’, ’steam train’ and ‘hardback book’.) But, very sadly, a lot of silent films are silent in more ways than just having no soundtrack. Three out of every four British movies made in the silent era can’t communicate to us at all because they are now lost. And not even the revered Alfred Hitchcock has evaded this cultural cull. The footage shot for Number 13 is long since gone. Only a couple of reels of Always Tell Your Wife exist. Hitch’s second feature, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle, is one of the most sought-after missing films in cinema history.

But, wonderfully, The Pleasure Garden is still here. And if you look hard enough, so is Alfred Hitchcock – in spirit at least.

Eight lovely curls of hair out of 10

Notes and acknowledgements:

A new restoration of The Pleasure Garden was carried out by the BFI in 2012. Judging by the trailer, it’s an amazing piece of renovation and reconstruction – but inconviently for me it’s not available commercially. As research for this review, I therefore resorted to watching a poor-quality copy of a 1981 rerelease on YouTube. Produced by the film collector Raymond Rohauer, this version of The Pleasure Garden is the work of a hack: it’s missing many scenes (which have since been added back for the BFI version), while the attractive title cards have been ‘updated’ with drab plain-text replacements.

My walk around east London took place on Friday 21 June 2019. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019.

I drew on many different sources for the factual information contained in this essay, but a few online articles are worth mentioning specifically.

The Hitchcock Zone’s pages on The Pleasure Garden helped with some important details, especially the section that lists all the original title cards.

Hitchcock’s 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich has been endlessly helpful throughout this blogging project.

This post (from a fascinating website that’s well worth exploring in full) is especially strong on The Pleasure Garden’s production and archive history.

This website helped with local information about Leytonstone.

The full set of Leytonstone Underground Station murals can be viewed at Greenwich Mural Workshop‘s official site and at this walking-tours page.

Advertisements

Downhill (1927, Alfred Hitchcock)

Downhill

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young man faces a series of hardships when he gallantly agrees to take the blame for a friend’s indiscretion…

Ivor Novello – who also co-wrote the stage play on which this film is based – plays Roddy Berwick, a high-achieving pupil at the kind of English public school later spoofed in the TV comedy Ripping Yarns. He’s the star rugger player and school hottie and an all-round good egg.

We see him larking about. We see him hanging out and listening to music with his pal Tim (Robin Irvine) and local waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). He seems a decent soul. But Roddy encounters problems when Mabel announces to the school’s headmaster that she’s pregnant – and Roddy is the father. He isn’t; it’s actually Tim, but she’s named Roddy because his family are rich. At first Roddy thinks it’s a joke, then the dread dawns on him. He’s faced with expulsion. But he knows that if he points the finger towards Tim, he’d be kicked out instead – and that would prevent the lower-class Tim getting into Oxford. So Roddy takes the blame…

Beautifully restored by the BFI, the print of Downhill now available to view positively gleans with clarity and smooth motion. It’s also been colour-tinted to reflect how audiences in 1927 would have seen it. All this French polishing allows us to appreciate the performances, which while obviously mannered and overly expressive in the style of silent cinema still contain warmth and charm. (There are very few title cards, the visual-minded Hitchcock preferring to let the actors’ expressions and postures tell the story.)

We can also bask in the brilliant mise-en-scene – the sets are very well designed and excellently dressed – as well as Hitchcock’s striking camera angles and lighting. For example, there are long lingering shots of a dejected Roddy standing forlornly on the escalator of a London Underground station or in an elevator. It’s not a coincidence that he’s moving downwards in both images; it’s a reflection of his state of mind. Elsewhere, an actress in a Paris nightclub has different levels of make-up depending on how Roddy sees her. Later, a discombobulated Roddy’s woozy point-of-view shots are achieved by crossfading different takes. His surroundings are often his emotions writ large. It’s German Expressionism transported into a minor British melodrama.

Having been expelled from the school and ostracised by his father, who believes Mabel’s lie, Roddy is left all alone in the world. He gets a job at a theatre, only to fall for a woman (Isabel Jeans in the first of her three Hitchcock roles) who cheats on him and spends all his money. He goes to France and works as a gigolo, but the disappointments keep coming and soon even his health fails him. Eventually – because the moral of this story is that things will come right in the end – an ill and mixed-up Roddy is taken home by some sailors who hope to get a reward. Thankfully, his father has since learnt the truth about Mabel and Tim, and welcomes him back with open arms. The last scene of the film has Roddy back on the rugby pitch of his old school. It’s an unconvincing and perhaps unsatisfyingly happy ending, but the ‘down’ journey there has been be so impressive you don’t begrudge Roddy his moment of ‘up’.

Eight sweetshops out of 10

Easy Virtue (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)

5921

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

The Ring (1927)

MV5BMDFiZjU0NmYtMjE4Mi00YjAwLThiNDQtYmJkYzI2NTAyYTNkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM3NzQ5NzQ@._V1_

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An exhibition boxer is hired as a pro’s sparring partner. But then the pro makes a move on his girlfriend…

Some of the earliest ever movies were boxing films. In the 1890s, cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson – the man who came up with the industry-standard 35mm film format – recorded fights involving boxers such as world heavyweight champion James J Corbett. Short and basic, they were the world’s first sporting films – and they were staged specifically for the camera. So Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring was following an established tradition. By 1927, of course, drama elements had been added to the mix – and the title of The Ring is actually a pun. As well as the boxing arena, it refers to a wedding ring. Because, for all the ways it prefigures movies such as Rocky and Ali, this is mostly a love-triangle melodrama.

At a funfair, Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, who had once been a prizefighter himself) is an undefeated boxer who puts on shows for the punters. But one day a man challenges him to a fight – and Jack is beaten. No wonder: it turns out the challenger is heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack’s done well enough, though, to be offered the job of Bob’s sparring partner. Bob then takes a shine to Jack’s girlfriend, Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis). She initially returns his affections, then pulls away. She later marries Jack, but is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Jack sets his sights on challenging Bob for the championship…

The film climaxes with the men’s bout, which seems to be taking place at the Albert Hall – a venue where Hitch used to watch boxing, fascinated by the rituals of the sport, and where he later set the finales of his two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. We get all the now-familiar clichés of a boxing movie: the well-to-do crowd, the frantic cornermen, POV shots as the fighters square up, the camera shooting through the ropes.

You can sense a lineage from all this to, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. But nonetheless The Ring has dated. How could it not? It was released 91 years ago and everyone involved in the production is long gone. There are six actors credited in the opening titles, for example, and five of them died in – respectively – 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967 and 1975. (London-born Harry Terry’s date of death is unknown, but given that he was in born in 1887, we can safely assume he’s no longer with us either. The most tragic death was the first: depressed after a downturn in her career, Lillian Hall-Davis took her own life, aged just 35.)

Perhaps the most old-fashioned elements is the lack of dialogue. There are very few title cards containing speech, so as a modern viewer you’re left to infer an awful lot of the detail. It doesn’t help with engaging with the drama, and after a while you wish you could get inside the heads of the characters just a little bit more. This paucity of words may be explained by the fact the script is credited to just Hitchcock himself. (Other people did work on it, however, including his wife, Alma Reville.) He was much more comfortable with and interested in visual storytelling, so while the story, characters and situations are conventional and predictable, there is the usual array of dynamic shots and effects. Crowd scenes at the funfair always have a waltzer rotating in the background; some shots have superimposed images so we can know what a character is thinking as well as what they can see; and at one point Mabel and Bob are filmed reflected in the gently ebbing waters of a river.

The best piece of narrative-by-pictures comes when Jack’s success in the boxing world is dramatised by a montage that shows his name being given more and more prominent placings on successive posters. A fantastic Hitchcock grace note has the seasons changing too.

Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.01Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.18Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.36Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.48Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.57

Seven bracelets out of 10

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

6941a88ab2413a05c8b4f3a334548220

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A widower searches for a new wife…

In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock gave an interview to Peter Bogdanovich, then a film critic and later a movie director himself. Hitch talked about his career so far, giving fascinating comments and opinions on every film he’d made. When asked about The Farmer’s Wife, though, he was noticeably sparse, saying just that it was ‘merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue. It was just a routine job.’

He wasn’t wrong. The film has sweetness and a few interesting techniques on show, but it’s mostly a soppy, conventional and not very memorable melodrama about a widower looking for love when it’s under his nose all along. So let’s use the space to discuss something else. Where did Alfred Hitchcock get his ideas?

The stage play that this film is based on, also called The Farmer’s Wife, was written by Eden Phillpotts. Born in India in 1862, Phillpotts had worked as an insurance officer before turning to a writing career that produced numerous novels, plays, short stories and poems. He became a friend and supporter of Agatha Christie and lived to be 98. (After his death, his daughter Adelaide – herself a successful writer – revealed that he had sexually abused her for about 30 years.)

In 1913, Phillpotts published a novel called Widecombe Fair and then three years later adapted it for the stage. Renamed The Farmer’s Wife, it was first performed in Birmingham. Between 1924 and 1927, the play was a smash hit in London with over 1,300 performances at the Royal Court Theatre. So it was prime material for a film company to snap up the rights and produce a movie version. This was a standard practise in the British film industry, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that basing films on pre-existing material would continue to be Alfred Hitchcock’s modus operandi for the rest of his career.

As the years went by, there were movies inspired by real-life events – Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Wrong Man (1956) – and a few that were original ideas thought up by or for Alfred Hitchcock. But almost all of his 54 full-length movies have plots taken from other sources.

Early on, he often looked to the theatre. Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Blackmail (1929), Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931) and Number Seventeen (1932) are all based on plays, while Waltzes from Vienna (1934) is an adaptation of a stage musical. Hitch then rather fell out of this habit, with only two more examples of him turning theatre shows into films: Rope (1948) and I Confess (1953). (You might also include Dial M for Murder (1954). Although it began as television play, it was the later stage adaptation that caught Hitch’s attention.)

More popular with the director were novels or short stories. Over half of Hitchcock’s output used prose as a starting-off point – take a deep breath if you’re reading this out loud: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Manxman (1929), Murder! (1930), Rich and Strange (1931), The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), The Paradine Case (1947), Under Capricorn (1949), Stage Fright (1950), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Marnie (1964), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976). You could also argue for The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) being on this list. Its plot was taken, rather loosely and with no formal acknowledgement, from a Bulldog Drummond story. (The 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, of course, is essentially a remake of the earlier movie.)

Of course, Hitchcock’s genius was to take all these sources – melodramas, romances and thrillers; high literature and potboilers – and give them his own spin. In some cases, the adaptation is very liberal. The longer Hitchcock’s career went on, the more you get a sense that being entertaining is more important than being faithful to the original text. Perhaps that’s the problem with The Farmer’s Wife: it comes too early in the filmography, at a time when Hitch wasn’t bold enough to do something daring. Phillpotts’s play is too orthodox, too predictable, too safe, too cosy. And so is the movie.

Five steam rollers for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman out of 10

The Manxman (1929)

The_manxmanAn occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When two male friends both fall for the same woman, it leads to unhappiness and potential tragedy…

Before he established his reputation as the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock worked in several genres. In his silent period, for example, comedies and romances sat alongside the early thrillers. And 1929’s The Manxman – based on a 1894 novel by Hall Caine, the man to whom Bram Stoker dedicated his book Dracula – is pure melodrama. But at least it’s pure melodrama done with some sweetness, at least to begin with.

The plot is a by-the-numbers love triangle: The Manxman is more a case of man v man. Two life-long mates on the Isle of Man, fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), are both smitten with local barmaid Kate (Anny Ondra, who sparkles with charisma in early scenes then brings real vulnerability to the role). Initially, Pete seems to be in with a chance, but Kate’s father objects because Pete has no money. So he sets off abroad to earn his fortune. While he’s away, Philip agrees to look after Kate. But their platonic friendship develops into romance.

Rumours then reaches the island that Pete has been killed in Africa, which makes Kate grimly relieved because she now wants to be with Philip. But when Pete arrives home alive and well, she feels enormous guilt and has no choice but to restart her relationship with him…

For all its orthodoxy, The Manxman is a compositionally beautiful film. Hitchcock opts for lots of straight-on, symmetrical shots and characters often look and deliver dialogue directly down the lens. This brings the viewer right into the heart of the story, making the characters vivid and memorable. There are also several nice, economic ways of advancing the plot. While Pete is overseas, for example, we see close-ups of Kate’s diary. As the weeks go past, ‘Mr Christian’ becomes ‘Phillip’ as they start their romance. Later, when Kate and Pete get married, the sequence is dramatised by a series of slow dissolves.

The lightness is giving way now, and the last third of the film contains some overwrought plotting. After Kate falls pregnant, it’s unclear who the father is. She goes to Philip, wanting him to take her away from her unhappy marriage. But his career has taken off – he’s now a Deemster, a Manx judge – and doesn’t want the scandal to damage his reputation. Kate is so alone and desperate she leaves Pete, but he keeps their newborn baby. Distraught, Kate attempts suicide by throwing herself into the harbour. She survives but suicide was an illegal act in 1929, so Kate is taken to court. And guess who the judge is?

The Manxman was Alfred Hitchcock’s final silent film and brings to an end the first phase of his career. He soon moved away from romances and embraced edge-of-your-seat thrillers. He experimented with sound and music. His movies became bigger is size and scale and ambition. And he developed a recurring character played by various actresses – a troubled, enigmatic blonde woman – and cast The Manxman’s Anny Ondra as the original iteration. Nearly four decades after shooting it, Hitchcock called this film an old-fashioned story. He was right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth seeing.

Seven mills (but no Boons) out of 10.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger at the Door

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While London is being rocked by a series of violent murders, a man checks into a boarding house near the scenes of the crimes. Is he the killer?

Context is everything. I’ve started Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger on three occasions, yet only finished it twice. The first time was during my university degree course in the late 90s, projected onto a big screen, and for a long time afterwards I remembered an entertaining, creepy and visually ambitious film from the silent era.

Two decades later, when it came to viewing the movie for this blog, I went online and found a cheap second-hand DVD available to buy. After it arrived in the post, I excitedly put the disc in the machine… and barely lasted 10 minutes. I had to switch off in disgust.

The DVD had been issued by GMVS Limited in 2004 and was such a ghastly piece of work it made me cringe. I was offended on The Lodger’s behalf. As good as many silent movies are – as great, as important, as interesting, as fun – it’s sometimes difficult watching one. Unless you’re a silent-era buff, the passage of such a long period of time inevitably creates barriers. As a modern viewer, you often need to abandon expectations of pacing and storytelling conventions, and learn how to enjoy a movie without audible dialogue, that has fewer cuts and camera moves, and can (sometimes) be dogged by overly theatrical performances.

And the process wasn’t helped by the awful, lazy, sloppy presentation available from GMVS. The print of The Lodger was dirty, scratchy, damaged. There were jarring cuts. Every scene was in dull black-and-white. Unrelated – and presumably available for free – music had been plastered onto the soundtrack, irrespective of relevance or rhythm or mood. (The macabre discovery of a murder victim next to the Thames? Scored by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy….)

Thank the cinematic gods, therefore, for the heroes at distribution company Network who, in 2012, reissued The Lodger as a lovingly assembled DVD and Blu-Ray. The print had been artfully cleaned and repaired by the British Film Institute. The film’s colour had been restored to what audiences in 1927 would have seen – the image tinted blue for exterior scenes at night, for example, or tinted a warm yellow for homely interiors. And a musical score by Nitin Sawhney had been specially commissioned, recorded and expertly dubbed. Now, thanks to Network, The Lodger can shine in all its glory.

(Just to balance all this gushing, I should say that the new score is only partly successful. Although a definite improvement on the GMVS disc’s that’ll-do dubbing, Sawhney opts for too much bombast. There are also – bewilderingly – *songs*, which is just distracting.)

The Lodger is the story of a Jack the Ripper-style serial killer called the Avenger. Near where his victims are being found, the family who run a boarding house start to fear that their new resident – a handsome but troubled young man played by Ivor Novello – could be the killer. The daughter of the house is a fashion model called Daisy (June Tripp) and she soon grows close to the man; her boyfriend, Joe (Malcolm Keen), is a policeman investigating the deaths.

Of course, Ivor Novello isn’t the killer. His character is actually a bereaved brother searching for his sister’s murderer. This revelation follows a fantastic scene where the suspicious police search his bag and discover details of the Avenger’s crimes. Novello’s performance alters at this point – his eyes well up and he pleads with the audience for sympathy in the classic silent-movie style. (Hitchcock had considered leaving it ambiguous as to whether the character was guilty, but studio bosses insisted on him being innocent. They reasoned that Ivor Novello’s fanbase wouldn’t like him playing a serial killer.)

Not for nothing, The Lodger’s director later called it ‘the first true Hitchcock movie’ because it introduced so many of his favourite themes and ideas. There’s tension and suspicion, romance and playfulness, dark humour and cynicism, an ambiguous hero and an enigmatic blonde. The film tells its story both through the perspectives of its characters *and* from a detached, omniscient point of view. It also makes great dramatic use of the boarding house’s staircase, starting an obsession with stairs and steps that ran through the rest of Hitch’s filmography.

At times the movie feels like a horror film (especially in the evocations of Jack the Ripper, whose crimes were then just 39 years in the past), while there’s also a real debt to German cinema of the 1920s. Hitchcock had worked in the German film industry prior to making The Lodger, and had generally been wowed by the works of directors Robert Wiene, FW Murnau and Fritz Lang. There’s some of their influence in The Lodger, especially in its use of shadows and camera angles. The way the lodger himself is sometimes shot brings to mind Count Orlok, the Dracula-by-another-name villain of Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu.

But the movie also has its charming and upbeat pleasures. There’s the gorgeous, Art Deco title cards… Scenes in the 1920s fashion world… A snappy, inventive sequence showing news spreading across London… The famous ‘glass ceiling’ shot as Hitchcock shows us a man pacing about in his bedroom *from beneath*, a moment of filmmaking bravura that takes your breath away…

What a brilliant movie. Inventive, clever, dark. It’s well worth seeing. Just make sure you see a decent version.

Nine men standing by some railings out of 10

Champagne (1928)

Champagne-1928-film-images-6f8c8657-172a-4f00-a94e-487fb306866

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A hedonistic heiress has to make her way in the world when her father says he’s financially ruined…

An odd Hitchcock film, this. Almost entirely lacking in tension, and featuring a lead character whose biggest problem in life is that she has to have a job, Champagne may be frothy and occasionally fun. It features some nice humour and the contemporary 1920s fashions are a treat. But it ultimately falls flat. There’s no fizz.

Betty (Betty Balfour) is a young, rich socialite who angers her father by using his Charles Lindbergh-style biplane to fly out to the middle of the Atlantic and board an ocean liner. The plane is sunk in the process, but she fares better: on the rowboat sent out by the liner’s crew, she removes her hat, goggles and coat to reveal an immaculate flapper frock. She’s made the journey to be with her boyfriend (French actor Jean Bradin), but he’s suffering from seasickness. The boat, you see, is rocking violently with the Atlantic swell – a motion that’s conveyed charmingly well by the Star Trek trick of having actors stagger from side to side. There’s also a creepy-looking passenger (Ferdinand von Alten) who eyes Betty up at any opportunity…

Eventually, Betty and the unnamed boyfriend reach Paris and she throws herself into the lifestyle of a bright young thing. When her fella visits her apartment she says to him, ‘Come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns.’ Being a silent film, of course, the dialogue is relayed via a title card. There are remarkably few of them in the movie: we’re told just 70 lines of dialogue in 93 minutes.

However, back in America, Betty’s millionaire father (played by Gordon Harker, who was the son of the man Bram Stoker named the character of Jonathan Harker after in Dracula) is fuming. His mouth twitches comically as he reads about his daughter’s rebelliousness in the newspaper, while a phalanx of employees nervously fuss around him. He makes the journey to France and when he arrives he says he has grave news: his fortune – earned in the champagne business – has been wiped out after a bad day on the stock market. They’re now skint. (A prescient plot point, this: the Wall Street crash was the year after this movie’s release.) This distressing news doesn’t seem to affect either father or daughter too badly, though, and soon the two are making a fist of it. They share a cramped bedsit and she sets about finding a job.

Finding one at a high-class restaurant, Betty goes off the rails – or at least by 1920s standards. She drinks! She smokes! She dances! She enjoys herself – the slut! Both her boyfriend and her father disapprove, while the creepy guy from the ocean liner is still sniffing around. She then gets an almighty shock when her father confesses that he’s not penniless after all. It was all a lie – a ruse to see how she’d cope without capital. Justifiably angry, Betty turns to the creepy guy and asks for help in getting out of the country. He agrees to take her home to America, but then aboard the boat he locks her in their cabin…

But don’t worry! He’s not a dangerous, sinister type – turns out, he’s a detective hired by Betty’s father to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t come to any harm. So that’s all right, then. I guess. The dad and the boyfriend show up, relationships are mended, lies are forgiven and everyone gets a happy and disgustingly rich ending.

With such a drab, lifeless story, you have to look elsewhere for Champagne’s pleasures. As ever with Hitchcock, it’s a visual treasure trove. The director is regularly experimenting or innovating with point-of-view shots (including a few through champagne glasses), crowd scenes, dissolves to suggest time passages and character’s thoughts, and other tricks such as moving footage becoming a still photo. There are also a few decent gags, like when Betty embraces her boyfriend while cooking and leaves flour handprints on his back. But overall this is a rare thing indeed: a *boring* Hitchcock movie.

Four cocktails out of 10

NOTE: An interesting quirk of film restoration means that the footage in Champagne is now probably *entirely different* from that seen in cinemas in 1928. When archivists at the BFI studied the surviving negative it soon became apparent that it was actually a version of the movie assembled from ‘second-best’ takes. It’s assumed this was compiled as a kind of safety copy. Sadly, no print of the theatrical cut has been found, so this ‘echo’ version of Champagne is now the default.

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922, FW Murnau)

nosferatu.0.0

Aka: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The main character’s hometown has been moved from London to the fictional German city of Wisborg. The film therefore has to ignore the fact that a journey from Transylvania to Germany by sea doesn’t make sense. Oh, and for some reason it’s 1838 rather than the 1890s of the book.

Faithful to the novel? Kind of. It’s an adaptation of the novel, yet the makers neglected to pay for the rights (the book was still in copyright, of course). In a fairly half-arsed attempt to muddy the waters, the characters’ names have all been changed. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and the courts ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed. Luckily for us, some survived. It’s still the same essential plot as the book, though things deviate from the source material once Count Orlok (the Dracula equivalent) arrives in the town that Hutter (ie, Harker) comes from. Meanwhile, Van Helsing is rewritten as a minor, bumbling local called Professor Bulwer, and other characters such as Lucy, Seward and Quincey are missing all together. (By the way, Orlok’s arrival comes after two-thirds of the movie; in the book it happens after a fifth of the text.)

Best performance: Max Schreck looks absolutely terrifying as Count Orlok. Bald head, big eyes, sharp teeth, demonic ears, long fingers – it’s a primal, creepy, awful image.

Best bit: The stuff on the ship is the most unsettling, especially a shot of Orlok springing up from his coffin as if by magic.

Review: There’s a lot to admire, there really is. For a start, the adaptation makes some economic trims to the book’s plot: this is Dracula striped down to its core elements. So while we lose subtext and complexity, the story rattles along. And for a movie made almost a century ago, there’s a lot of fun to be had on a technical level. Rather than black-and-white, the film is tinted in different colours to suit each scene. There are innovative uses of double exposures and negative images. The sets are in the style of the then-cutting-edge German Expressionist movement. And we see some fantastic locations – in Berlin, northern Germany, Slovakia and the island of Sylt – which may have been used to save money but give the whole thing a grand scale. It’s dated, of course, like any silent-era movie. The overwrought acting styles take some getting used to, while the characters are bland and shallow. But it’s still easy to see why the film has had such an impact.

Nine Venus flytraps out of 10

Next time: Shadow of the Vampire, a 2000 movie set behind the scenes on Nosferatu…