Olympic Hitch

The rugby game from Hitchcock’s Downhill (1927), from 1000 Frames of Hitchcock

Here in the UK we’re shaping up nicely for the Olympic Games in 2012. We’ve moved from being cynical to saying we can’t aford to wanting it to succeed to believing it could actually be fantastic (then after the Games we’ll revert to cynicism again, with is the natural order of things in Blighty). And for those who don’t actually like sport there’s the Cultural Olympiad – a programme of arts and culture events which have little if anything to do with the Olympic Games but, hey, arts organisations will grasp at any straw that goes floating by.

But enough of my own cynicism. We’re going to get a whole range of interesting cultural events grounded in fundamental Olympic themes such as community, regeneration, youth – you know the sort of thing. And silent cinema should get a look in, because what has just been announced by the BFI is a touring retrospective for 2012 of Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films.

This is a bold and welcome move, as for most Hitchcock’s silent career remains a closed book, beyond possibly an awareness that he made The Lodger. Strictly speaking the retrospective isn’t formally a part of the Cultural Olympiad as yet, but the BFI is pointing out, rather ingeniously, that Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, near the Olympic park in East London. A report in The Independent describes the plans, which include an exhibition:

Eddie Berg, artistic director of the BFI, said … “One of the things we are trying to get off the ground is to restore the silent films. Most of the visual tropes in these titles appear in his later works. We want to look at his influence on the contemporary world. The season will look at his huge body of work and his influence in different ways,” said Mr Berg.

The silent titles will form the heart of the retrospective, but the exhibition may also include the music of the American composer Bernard Herrmann, who collaborated with Hitchcock on the scores for Psycho, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. A staging of Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho, a 1993 artwork featuring a slowed-down version of the horror film, will also feature.

Amanda Neville, director of the BFI, said the initiative would “resurrect the [Hitchcock] films that are not on the tips of everybody’s tongues”.

Some of the films need critical restoration work, she said, and “three of them cannot go through a film projector – the level of damage to them is phenomenal.”

Robin Baker, the BFI’s head curator, said he was keen to discover the whereabouts of Hitchcock’s silent movie The Mountain Eagle, which he called the “holy grail” of lost British films.

“It was made in 1926 and was his last silent film featuring a sexually vulnerable young woman and a case of miscarriage of justice,” he said. [I think that’s a misquote and what he actually said was “first film featuring…”]

Hitchcock began his career in Britain as a designer of film title cards before directing a dozen silent films, including The Lodger, in 1926 and which the BFI hopes to restore and screen.

His first “talkie” film Blackmail, released in 1929, was shot as a silent feature and later converted to sound.

Well, I don’t expect they were planning to project those three damaged nitrate prints in any case, but the retrospective should also play its part in educating audiences about film restoration, as well as offering new opportunities to see silent films and unfamiliar Hitchcock. And as further indications of Olympic relevance, let’s point out the sporty bits of Hitchcock’s silents – boxing in The Ring, the rugby game in Downhill, the tennis match in Easy Virtue

For an overview of Hitchcock’s extensive silent film career (he began as a title writer for the British Famous Players-Lasky studios in 1920), see this earlier Bioscope post. And let’s hope along with Robin Baker that a print of The Mountain Eagle finally turns up. That really would be an event worthy of any Cultural Olympiad.

2 responses

  1. The silent Hitchcocks are hardly “often forgotten” and “seen by almost nobody for decades” to quote from the same article. There was a full Hitchcock season at NFT for the centenary in 1999. Many of the silent titles are currently available on DVD. They are the most often revived British pre-sound features.

  2. Fair enough, though 1999 was a long time ago now, and presumably this initiative will aim to find audiences for the films beyond those who get to the NFT or indeed who normally see silent films.

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