Hitchcock: The Silent Years (Part One)

By Drew Morton

Being a Film Studies academic can be a blessing and a curse.  It’s a blessing because I’m fortunate enough to get paid to teach film history and popular culture courses and to research an art form that has defined my life.  It’s a curse because–in certain social situations, often when alcohol is involved–there is an assumption that you’ve seen every movie ever made and can speak coherently about any era, director, or film off the top of your head.  While I’m sure my ability to match this assumption will increase with age, I also think it is imperative to “fess up” and render a blind spot into a learning experience.

One of my blind spots has been the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

Sure, I’ve seen the “classics” (The 39 StepsShadow of a DoubtNotoriousStrangers on a TrainRear Window, and those temporally beyond to name a few), many of them multiple times.  Still, the Master of Suspense made 57 films and I’ve only seen about 20 of them.  That’s right.  I’ve seen less than 50% of Hitchcock’s films, most of them pre-39 Steps and post-The Birds.  Most of these overlooked films are from his prolific and yet widely overlooked silent period.  In order to rectify the situation and to address my blind spot, I figured I would spend the next month covering Hitchcock’s ‘Silent Eight’ (nine if you count Blackmail!, which was released both silent and with a soundtrack), two at a time.

Today, I’ll primarily be focusing on The Pleasure Garden (1925) and The Lodger:  A Story of the London Fog (1927).

younghitch

According to Hitchcock’s interviews with François Truffaut, he’d always had an interest in the film industry (reading professional trade publications throughout his teenage years).  He began as a intertitle designer for the United Kingdom base of operations for Paramount Pictures, and quickly moved up the ranks, becoming a jack of all trades for director Graham Cutts.  One of their early collaborations, The White Shadow (1923), was recently discovered in New Zealand.  While a “complete” negative of the film does not exist, I was able to view about half of it a few years ago at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences restoration screening.  Below are a few notes I made on the very brief screening.

The film, directed by Cutts, was adapted by the 24 year old Hitchcock from a novel by Michael Morton.  The White Shadow is also significant because it featured Hitchcock in several other artistic roles including assistant director, editor, art director, set director, production designer.  The film features Betty Compson in a dual role as a set of twins–one socially “evil” (she drinks, smokes, and gambles!) and one her complete opposite–who fall in love with Clive Brook’s American.  It’s unfair to judge an incomplete film.  The segments of White Shadow screened showcased some stunning photography, staging, and a few thematic obsessions that would mark Hitchcock’s later work including doppleganger women and his trademark dark humor.

That said, the film is also absurdly plotted.  When the film devolved into a freeze frame, marking the end of the archivists’ discovery, Eva Marie Saint came out and read a short description of the final three reels.  In thirty minutes of screen time, there are major character reversals, globetrotting adventures, and several blindsiding deaths (not of the murder varietal, unfortunately).  When the audience began to laugh at Saint’s material, she smiled and said “Don’t ask me what it means!  I didn’t write it!”  The discovery was aptly described as Hitch’s “student film” and a public domain upload can be found here on YouTube.

thepleasuregarden

Hitchcock’s debut feature, The Pleasure Garden, is only slightly more coherent from the standpoint of story but infinitely more compelling from the perspectives of form and theme.  The film follows two chorus girls, Patsy (Virginia Valli) and Jill (Carmelita Geraghty).  When Jill arrives at the Pleasure Garden Theater penniless, Patsy lends her a helping hand by asking Jill to stay with her.    Jill quickly finds wealth, success, and the interest of men after becoming one of the main attractions at the theater.  She finds herself engaged to Hugh while simultaneously courting a Russian prince.  Patsy, much like the dueling women of The White Shadow, is Jill’s moral opposite and he marries one of Hugh’s associates –Levett–before the two men (another set of opposites) depart to work on the plantations in Africa. Eventually, Patsy finds herself down in Africa and discovers that Levett has been unfaithful (he lives with one of the native women) and has gone insane (Levett kills the native girl when he is discovered and later turns on his wife).

From a formalist and thematic perspective, The Pleasure Garden fully showcases Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism.  The first sequence, in which a rich patron ogles the chorus girls through his opera glasses, is cut together in such a way that I could imagine Laura Mulvey holding it up as an example of the narrative and formal misogyny inherent in the mainstream filmmaking.  The history of the cinema is, for lack of a better description, the history of men looking at women.  While Hitchcock notably takes this theme to a self-reflexive and even critical extreme in Rear Window (as Mulvey writes, Hitchcock “shows up [the gaze’s] perverted side”), the exhibition of female characters is much more progressive than we might initially believe.

For instance, the sequence is incredibly over-the-top in terms of its visual construction (the ogling men are turned into a punch line repeatedly, from their over-acting to the fact that they can’t see where they’re walking because they are transfixed on the dancers).  Moreover, the narrative of the sequence undermines the power of the rich patron.  Patsy acknowledges that her presentation on the stage–her hair in particular–is an illusion, ridicules the man’s lack of charm, and ultimately leaves him on the stage, speechless.  As if this wasn’t enough of a critique, Hitchcock never returns to the character.  Essentially, Hitchcock’s formal and narrative construction initially sides with the masculine gaze (the first image we are shown is a line of chorus girls coming down a spiral stair case from a low-angle) only so that he can undermine it.  

Thematically, The Pleasure Garden is a fascinating mess.  The title ends up becoming ironic, as both the theater and the “pleasure garden”/Eden of the African frontier ultimately destroy two of the characters.  Specifically, Jill is corrupted and becomes a ruthless woman, unwilling to extend the same courtesies that Patsy initially extended to her.  More importantly, the film’s final reel seems to evolve into a loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (it has been 15 years since I read Conrad’s book, so I may be slightly misinterpreting or misremembering the narrative here).  Both the leading men go to Africa as a vaguely colonialist presence and become “sick” from the experience.  Levett, like Kurtz, has been driven insane by his “native” setting.  Hugh, like Marlowe, becomes sick with fever.  Like Hearts of DarknessThe Pleasure Garden is problematic from a racial perspective.  On one hand, it seems to criticize colonialism by implying that it leads to sickness, insanity, and murder.  On the other hand, it also plays into representational stereotypes of the other.  You can judge for yourself by checking out this HD presentation on YouTube.  

thelodger

After The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock directed The Mountain Eagle – a lost film – before moving onto The Lodger:  A Story of the London Fog.  The Lodger is Hitchcock’s self-proclaimed “first movie” insofar as it serves as the prototype for many of his explorations of the thriller genre.  While The Lodger is much more straight-forward than Pleasure Garden thematically, here we can fully grasp the influence that German Expressionism had on Hitchcock.  The filmmaker had visited the legendary UFA Studio in Germany and observed F.W. Murnau while directing The Last Laugh just a few years earlier and it is impossible not to see the film as mimicking Murnau.  For instance, the emergence of the title character (Ivor Novello) from the London fog –with a muffler masking his face and his rigid stature intimidating the lady of the house–recalls the emergence of Nosferatu on the boat.  Later, when the other folks in the house hear the Lodger pacing in the wee small hours of the morning, Hitchcock visualizes the sound by superimposing feet on the ceiling (which would later be echoed in such silent classics as The Crowd).

The Lodger is loosely based on the Jack the Ripper case.  In Hitchcock’s version – based off of Belloc Lowndes’s novel – the killer stalking the London streets is called the ‘Avenger.’  He tends to stalk and kill blondes on Tuesday nights.  Hitchcock visual and narrative cues lure us into believing that the Lodger is actually the Avenger.  He seems obsessed with his blonde housemate Daisy (June).  He spends his nights out on the London streets.  At one point, he’s caught with a map that mirrors the murderer’s killing patterns.   Meanwhile, Daisy’s parents and boyfriend – the police officer Joe (Malcolm Keen) – begin to put the pieces together.

Yet, any Hitchcock fan will realize early on that the Lodger is not the Avenger.  This conclusion doesn’t arise from any textual clues per se, merely because Hitchcock seems to stack the deck so obviously in favor of that conclusion.  What The Lodger becomes an example of is another one of Hitch’s “wrong man” movies; a film that exhibits both the fear and dangers of mistaken identity (the climax involves a horrifying devolution into mob justice) and an interpretation of the police that is less than flattering.  The Lodger is an early masterpiece for all these reasons:  for it’s prototypical status with regard to his thematic preoccupations, for its expressionistic exploration of silent film form, and for being Hitchcock’s first concise and playful exploration of the thriller genre.  An HD version of film can be found here.

 

About Drew Morton 39 Articles

Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication. While his students call him “Doctor” or “Dr. Drew,” he is unable to help people suffering from medical ailments (he can only prescribe films) or from sexual dysfunction (although he can be quick with a double entendre). His film criticism has appeared in Cultural Transmogrifier, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Pajiba.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. The Black Maria’s 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival Top Picks | The Black Maria

Leave a Reply