Alfred Hitchcock fanatics, get ready for a treat. A fully restored collection of the very first films by the Master of Suspense is coming to the Bay Area.
The Hitchcock 9, a series of the earliest surviving Hitchcock features, is a project of the British Film Institute, which rescued The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Lodger (1926), The Ring (1927), Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1928), Champagne (1928), The Farmer's Wife (1928), The Manxman (1929), and Blackmail (1929), most of which have never been seen by theater audiences since their original releases. The BFI is now partnering with San Francisco's Silent Film Festival — among other organizations and venues in this country — to present the world premiere re-release of these rare silent treasures at the Castro Theatre for three days only, beginning Friday. Each film will be shown one time, each with live musical accompaniment.
True Hitch devotees will naturally want to see all nine, but if we were forced to pick only one, Blackmail would be difficult to resist. German actress Anny Ondra stars as Alice White, an indecisive London shopgirl embroiled in a murder with questionable sexual overtones (she was modeling for an artist at the time), blackmailed by a false witness, and protected by her Scotland-Yard-detective boyfriend (John Longden). Hitchcock, who worked at UFA's Babelsberg Studios in Berlin before returning to his native London, had had seven years and some twelve films to practice his signature motifs by the time he made Blackmail. The movie's denouement, a rooftop chase climaxing atop the British Museum, is the first of the director's "landmark" finales. But even without that, Ondra's performance and a wealth of character details spell the Hitchcock we know well, glimpsed here in recognizably mature form. Blackmail screens on Friday, June 14, at 8 p.m., with live music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
The innocent person wrongly suspected of a crime, comic relief by homey working-class characters, inserted close-ups of incriminating and/or symbolic props, the ubiquitous "woman in specs," a decidedly "Germanic" sense of light and space, a fixation on golden-haired women — all these indispensable Hitchcock trademarks and more crop up in the nine pics. The Lodger (Sunday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m.), probably the best known of the lot, was the one the director claimed as "the first true 'Hitchcock' movie," a classic broth of foggy London streets (with a nod to the Jack the Ripper murders), a gloomy rooming house, and the mysterious title tenant, portrayed somnambulistically by actor Ivor Novello. Androgynous screen sensation Novello also shows up in a true rarity, the wildly melodramatic Downhill, playing a privileged public-school boy whose self-destructive walk on the wild side takes him, à la Arthur Rimbaud, to the depths of shame and degradation — symbolized heavily by a "down" escalator in the tube. Downhill plays on Saturday, June 15, at 4 p.m.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchcock's barbed naturalism uncovers a queasy-making strain of sexism and racism in England of the 1920s, the latter typified in The Ring (Saturday, 7 p.m.) by a carnival scene of a crowd of white people joyously throwing eggs at a black man in a "dunk-'em" game. The boxing drama — Hitchcock's first and only original screenplay — is the socially conscious story of a carny prize fighter named Jack "One-Round" Sander (Danish actor Carl Brisson), whose romance with his midway sweetheart Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis) is hampered the presence of one Bob Corby, the "Champion of Australia" (Ian Hunter). Great cast, convincing fisticuffs. The Ring has a documentary feel to it, even though the entire fairground set was built on a studio lot. We're willing to bet money Martin Scorsese studied the movie while researching Raging Bull.
Grand as it is, The Hitchcock 9 effectively functions as a run-up to the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 18-21, also at the Castro. Seventeen films in four days, in what has grown to be one of the country's (the world's?) most eagerly awaited film festivals, showcasing the work of Louise Brooks, King Vidor, Yasujiro Ozu, G.W. Pabst, Allan Dwan, et al. For up-to-date info on both extravaganzas, visit SilentFilm.org.