Friday, December 24, 2010

Early Hitchcock

This spotlight was more than 1.5 years in the making. The initial idea for the spotlight was made back in April 2009 when I came across a boxed set of Hitchcock's films from 1920-1940. However, I deviated from watching the early films and instead tracked down some post 1940 Hitchcock films reviewed by André Bazin in Cinema of Cruelty. The idea was to dive into the earlier works once I finished some of the 1940's films but I ran out of time in 2009 and only managed to see these 5 films:

Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Saboteur (1942)
Lifeboat (1944)
Rope (1948)
Strangers on a Train (1951)

So the following are some earlier works to wrap up this spotlight.

Champagne (1928)
Blackmail (1929)
The Manxman (1929)
Juno and the Paycock (1930)
The Skin Game (1931)

Watching the early films of Alfred Hitchcock requires a complete reorientation to the director's body of work. Hitchcock directed more than 65 features and had the unique chance to work in three very different film eras -- black and white silent, black and white talkies and color films. Yet, he is known for films from the final phase of his career. When people talk about Hitchcock, they are mostly talking about films he directed in America post 1950 even though he was directing films in the UK as early as 1925.

Most of the early pre 1930 Hitchcock films have nothing do with the mystery and suspense tales that the director is identified with. Instead, Hitchcock was able to properly develop his craft by working in different film styles over a course of a few decades. There aren’t many modern directors who can claim to spend a few decades making a variety of films before finding a unique voice. It seems current directors are expected to announce themselves in just 1-2 films after which their auteur style is endlessly debated in magazines and the internet. Ofcourse, modern directors have the luxury to study the works of directors across various nations and decades, have access to more films and books about film directors than ever before. Back in the old silent film days, Hitchcock only had a few auteurs to learn from and probably experimented a lot on his own before working on a film. Or he learned on the job like many directors did until the 1950's.

Of the 5 earlier films, only Blackmail contains some elements that can be identified as post 1950 Hitchcock. The chase sequence at the end of Blackmail shares some common ground with the famous Mt. Rushmore sequence at the end of North by Northwest. Blackmail is also considered Hitchcock's first talkie even though it was originally a silent film and the dialogues were added only in post production. This is something that can be assessed from the opening 10 minutes when the film is silent until shockingly, some of the character's conversations fill the screen.

These five films still identify a director in command of the camera's placement and able to properly use music to heighten emotions. Ofcourse, music is another element that jumps out when talking about Hitchcock’s mystery films, so it is interesting to note even in the silent films, the music was smartly used. Three of the films, The Skin Game, The Manxman and Champagne, are rooted in pre WW-II British society where there was a clear divide between the rich and poor. In both The Manxman and Champagne this class structure forms a barrier in the way of two lovers. Yet, in both films there is a wealthy man around who can woo the woman away instead. So a love triangle is formed. Interestingly, the love triangle was also a trademark of many Bollywood films from the mid 1980's until about 2000 or so.

Juno and the Paycock is adapted from an Irish play and is set against the background of the Irish civil war. The film is confined mostly to a single room with off screen gunfire giving an indication of the wider struggle underway. The film shows Hitchcock's ability to smartly vary the camera angles thereby adding a richer dimension to the characters’ troubles.

Overall, this spotlight was a tad disappointing. The patchy DVD transfer is partly to be blamed even though messages at the start of all films warned about the difficulties in the DVD transfer so the substandard picture and audio quality is not entirely a surprize. Still, the films serve as an example that there is more to Hitchcock than meets the eye.

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