Silent Hitch

There are more books about Hitchcock than any other film director. Why is that? He doesn’t sound like promising material for so many works. A plump, nondescript Englishman, son of a grocer, of working class background, without even the romance of being destitute, who had modest, even boring tastes and was married to and worked with the same woman for fifty-four years. Why above other directors do we love to dissect his films, ponder on his psyche, look for patterns in his work? He dominates film history like a Napoleon; single minded, enigmatic, and ruthlessly self-promoting; having like Bonaparte built an iconic brand that will stand the test of time. Perhaps our fascination has lasted because Hitchcock’s entire approach to filmmaking was to appeal to us, the audience. As he said to Truffaut in the famous interview, “you have to design your films just as Shakespeare did his plays, for an audience” (putting himself in good company!). And his desire to impress us is as keen in The Pleasure Garden as in all his films down to Family Plot.
The British claim Hitchcock rather shyly for, like that other London genius Chaplin, Hitchcock really belongs to Hollywood, but he had a long and successful career in British cinema before being lured across the pond by Selznick in 1939. Even though Hitchcock’s greatest classics were yet to come, his British films The 39 Steps, Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew too Much had already made him Britain’s greatest filmmaker.
Nearly all of Hitchcock’s films have been in circulation since they were made, more or less, which makes it more surprising that his earliest films, apart from The Lodger, have never been fully restored. It was with a view to correcting this state of affairs that the BFI embarked on an ambitious project, as part of the 2012 cultural celebrations to accompany the London Olympics, to restore the nine surviving silent films (the tenth, The Mountain Eagle remains elusive). The project spanning three years scoured the FIAF archives and collectors for material to supplement the few elements that survived at the BFI.
What we found was a very sobering lack of material to work from – the Gainsborough titles only existed in print form (The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger and Downhill) although the vintage prints enabled us to recreate the original tinting. Negatives for the British International Pictures titles did survive (The Manxman, Blackmail, and Champagne) although sometimes only as second negatives, and for The Ring and The Farmer’s Wife there was no original material at all, only acetate copies made in the 1960s.
Worst of all, for Easy Virtue only a battered, abridged 16mm print. Extensive search did reveal some new material excised by distributors – nearly twenty minutes has been added to The Pleasure Garden returning the film’s symbolic leitmotifs.
We learned a lot about Hitchcock’s filmmaking and contemporary studio practice during the restoration project – a benefit of doing all nine at once – all of which information had to be deduced forensically from the films themselves as no documentation survives.
But despite the deficiency of the source material the results are good – some, very good. The combination of photochemical and digital techniques which we are, for the moment, privileged to work with have produced considerably improved prints which we are delighted to present in full to Il Cinema Ritrovato.

(Bryony Dixon)


Programme curated by Bryony Dixon 

In co-production with BFI National Archive