Alfred Hitchcock has gone down in movie history as a chatty fellow, the roguish filmmaker and droll TV host gleefully impersonated by Anthony Hopkins in last fall's "Hitchcock." But the British-born master of suspense began his career in the era when movies were mute, save for intertitles and musical accompaniment, and was one of the most accomplished directors of that era.
His skill as maker of silent films was long hard to ascertain, however, because of the condition of the existing prints. Now his nine still-extant silent movies have been beautifully restored and are being presented at the American Film Institute and the National Gallery of Art in an 11-film series titled "The Hitchcock 9." (More about the math later.)
Most of the movies, made between 1925 and 1929, had never been restored until a recent project by the British Film Institute. "We had one go at 'The Lodger' in the '90s," says Bryony Dixon, the BFI's curator of silent film. "The others had not been touched at all."
The occasion was the 2012 London Olympics, for which major arts organizations were encouraged "to sort of get out our London heavyweights," as Dixon puts it. The BFI's "big icon is Hitchcock. He's our most famous filmmaker. And the one block of his films that had never really been restored were the silents."
"The whole thing took about three years," she notes. "We threw money and people at it, in a way that would normally be impossible within the resources of an underfunded cultural institution."
Ordinarily, the BFI doesn't take on so many films at once, Dixon says. "Nine was very unusual to do in that short period of time. Normally, we would do one silent and maybe one or two sound films, something like that."
The Washington screenings began last weekend, with "The Manxman" at the AFI and "The First Born" and "Easy Virtue" at a well-attended National Gallery double bill. All were accompanied by Stephen Horne, who played piano as well as bits of accordion, flute and percussion. "He's one of our finest exports," says Dixon of Horne, a Briton who often accompanies films at the BFI's Southbank theater.
"The First Born," along with "The Constant Nymph," boost "The Hitchcock 9" to 11. Neither was directed by the master, but both were scripted by Alma Reville, Hitchcock's wife and steady (if often uncredited) collaborator. (Reville was also unacknowledged on "The Constant Nymph.")
"The First Born" was directed by its male lead, Miles Mandler, who appeared in several Hitchcock silents. With its cunning twists and nasty fates, the movie today seems more Hitchcockian than "Easy Virtue," an adaptation of a Noel Coward play. But then the full extent of the latter movie is unknown.
Restoring the film was "almost impossible, as you can see," Dixon says. "That was the one about which we could do almost nothing." Only part of the movie could be reconstructed, all from 16mm versions. "It's missing about a third of the film, and the quality is dreadful," she says. "Some of the Hitchcock touches, I think, are probably missing."
In the silent era, multiple versions of films were made for different markets, and distributors often did their own edits. In addition, because reproduction technology was so limited, filmmakers used alternate footage to create second negatives that were close but not identical to the original. That makes reconstructing the true "director's cut" nearly impossible.
"That's the art of the thing," Dixon says. " 'Champagne' is a good example. It's edited together in sequence, but there are some shots that are not matched as beautifully as Hitchcock usually does it. There a couple of bits with funky acting, which could be better. After you've restored nine films, you get a feeling for how he works, and how he edits. And it just never felt right. Then we discovered that it was the second negative, because it says so. It's scratched into the leader on the front of the film."
American distributors often "tightened" films so they could turn over audiences more frequently, but Dixon says that in restoring Hitchcock's "The Pleasure Garden" the BFI found that American prints provided more footage. "We got another 20 minutes of material, just in tiny, tiny little bits that had been trimmed or cut out of other versions."
"That's why you should never throw anything away," adds Dixon, sounding a bit like a Hitchcock character. "There are always clues, little forensic clues."
Restorations such as "The Hitchcock 9" use digital technology, which Dixon says has changed the process "utterly." Image quality can be improved, titles restored and tints and tones reproduced. But the BFI still makes film prints for institutions such as the AFI and the National Gallery, which are showing the Hitchcock silents in 35mm.
"This will become more important," Dixon says. "It will become more of an occasion to see film on film. There will be specialist institutions that will probably be the only places to screen film on film."
Horne has finished his Washington run, but the local screenings of all the Hitchcock silents will feature live musical accompaniment. In London, new scores were commissioned for the films, composed by such contemporary British musicians such as Nitin Sawhney and Soweto Kinch. But only four of the nine BFI restorations will be released with synchronized scores.
"We spent all the money on the films," Dixon says. "We commissioned scores for the live events, but getting stuff recorded with multiple musicians is incredibly expensive."
For the BFI, there's one more piece of unfinished Hitchcock business: the director's one other silent film, shot in Germany and Austria in 1926.
"It's gone," the film restorer says. "We've searched high and low, for decades and decades. Still no sign of 'The Mountain Eagle.' We keep looking."
Hitchcock described the movie in the lengthy interviews he did with fellow directors and fervent admirers Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich. "He didn't like it very much," Dixon says. "It was a studio picture. And a daft story."
"I almost wish that we don't find it, in a funny kind of way," she muses. "It's more interesting as a mystery than as discovery."
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Jenkins is a freelance writer.