Il Cinema Ritrovato Book Fair: Interview with Charles Barr

Charles Barr is a British film historian. He serves on the editorial board of the US-based journal Hitchcock Annual. After working in educational television, he started teaching at the University of East Anglia in 1976, up until 2006. He continued to teach full-time for five years, at Washington University in St. Louis and then at University College Dublin. Many of Charles’s publications have been in the field of British cinema, including All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema. More recently, his main work has been on Alfred Hitchcock, including the jointly-authored volume Hitchcock: Lost and Found, available for purchase at Il Cinema Ritrovato – Book Fair. In 2013 he was invited to Il Cinema Ritrovato to teach a Master class on Hitchcock’s silent films.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most famous directors in the history of filmmaking. Many books have been written about him and his movies but part of his work still remains unknown to the great public. This is what Hitchcock Lost and Found is about: forgotten, incomplete and lost works from the famous master of suspense. Which ones of forgotten, incomplete and lost works are included in this book and why?

Answering first the question “why?” – we start by quoting the American critic Paula Cohen,who wrote that to study Hitchcock is to find ‘an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema’. New angles and new material help to deepen our understanding of Hitchcock’s long career and of what it means within film history.

Lost, incomplete, forgotten: there are many examples of each, so I will pick some of the most interesting, on behalf of myself and my co-author from Paris, Alain Kerzoncuf.

Lost films which are now found. The biggest discovery is The Man from Home, a feature from 1922. Hitchcock’s first job was working for an American company in London, Famous Players-Lasky British; it had always been thought that none of their eleven productions survived, but we found this one in the Eye archive in Amsterdam, in a full tinted print. Hitchcock did not direct it, and his title designs are not preserved in this Dutch version, but it reveals a lot about his first colleagues and first influences.

Films which remain lost, but of which we now know more: after the American company went home, Hitchcock was given the chance to direct an independent film of his own, Number Thirteen, but the money ran out and it was never finished or shown. Almost nothing was known about it, but we found the name of the writer (film publicist Elsie Codd), an outline of the story, and many new stills. Nobody could fail to find this evidence of his first effort as a director to be of interest.

Incomplete films. Two of the five silent films scripted by Hitchcock for the British company Gainsborough remain incomplete, including the very last film he worked on before promotion to director, The Prude’s Fall. The surviving half-hour section, from late in the film, was always hard to understand. We found archival documents which enable the full story to be reconstructed – and the footage now comes to life and repays close analysis. Very valuable as a glimpse of where Hitchcock was ‘coming from’ as he began his directing career.

Forgotten works. Much of the book deals with films that have been not lost, but neglected – from different periods. Among much else, there is new material on two films from the early sound period, both 1930. On Elstree Calling, an episodic revue film, Adrian Brunel is named as director, with Hitchcock credited for ‘sketches and other interpolated items’. Archival documents combine with film analysis to establish for the first time exactly what he is likely to have done. Soon after, he filmed a dual-language production typical of the period: the very English crime thriller Murder!, and a German version, Mary. Although both have been available for years, our book is the first to compare them in any detail, for instance showing through comparison of five pairs of frame-stills how extremely close they are in visual terms.

– The book opens with a chapter on Hitchcock’s works before The Pleasure Garden, known as his first feature. How would you describe Hitchcock’s early experience in cinema?

Anyone’s time spent working as a youthful apprentice in any field is sure to be influential. Hitchcock spent five years working first for an American company in London, and then for a more successful British one. It was important that he had both those experiences. Not only did he get a great training, from both, in the various crafts of cinema: he first saw from the inside the ruthless ‘cultural imperialism’ of American cinema, which was already making it hard for British films to get exhibited even in their home market, and then worked from the British side in devising ways of resisting this imperialism. This grounding ensured that he stayed acutely aware of the technical and commercial realities of the film industry, throughout his 50-year directing career – one of the keys to his success.

– In this book, you also examine Hitchcock’s career during World War II. How did this event affect his works? 

Hitchcock was a committed political film-maker. We can trace the resistance to Nazism through from British thrillers like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) to the features he made in wartime Hollywood such as Saboteur (1942) and Lifeboat (1944). What is amazing is the range of more direct propaganda work that he also found time to do during the war, in shorter projects, on behalf of America, Britain, and France. We cover many examples, making this, along with the earlier section on his apprenticeship, the richest section of the book and the most enjoyable to write,.

– In the introduction to the book it is written: “There is scope for a separate book on Hitchcock and the archives, tracing how and when and where each archive obtained its prints, and what it did with them.” What kind of connection exists between the Hitchcock myth and the archives?

Hitchcock directed more than 50 feature films, and all but one of them survives: this is itself evidence of the central role of the film archives. When the pioneer archives were set up in the 1930s, they quickly recognised his work as having high priority. And archives continue to be an important resource, yielding new material all the time. Four examples from four different countries:

  • Our initial inspiration was the discovery, by researchers in the New Zealand archive, of the second of the British silent films that Hitchcock scripted, The White Shadow (1923) – though in an incomplete print.

  • The Eye archive in the Netherlands found The Man from Home (see first section above)

  • The Library of Congress film archive in Washington found a 16mm print of Hitchcock’s re-edit, for American audiences, of the 1940 British propaganda short, Men of the Lightship, one of the unpublicised but important ways in which he helped the war effort in the margins of his big feature films. This enabled us to compare the original with the re-edit for the first time, and to demonstrate just how much care and craft he devoted to this kind of task.

  • The East Anglian Film Archive in Norwich, England, had preserved the short 16mm colour film that Hitchcock made in 1963 in response to a request from the Westcliff Film Society in his native county of Essex, east of London, Much of it consists of Hitchcock speaking direct to camera, and the book transcribes his words.

There is a good chance that new discoveries will continue to be made.

During the original research, we thought we had found, in a fifth country, in the archive in Moscow, another of the ‘lost’ productions of Famous Players-Lasky British, Three Live Ghosts (1922), to set alongside The Man from Home. But Moscow identified it as a later remake. Recently, they looked again, and found it was the early version after all. It will be shown at Pordenone in October, and will naturally feature in any new edition of the book.

The book itself gives much information about films that are still lost, or still incomplete. And at the end it has a list of ten lost silent films, priorities for rediscovery: some by Hitchcock, others by colleagues and by contemporaries. Some of these must surely survive somewhere…

The Bologna audience has a good proportion of delegates who work for archives, or who use archives. Please read the book, and keep looking!