Monday, 9 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock: the early years

However exciting the chance to see many of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies with new scores in the BFI’s splendid summer season dedicated to the director, it’s telling how the burgeoning of his cinematic art coincided with the arrival of sound. Early silent stand-outs include The Lodger (1926), now soundtracked by Nitin Sawhney - live at the Barbican on 21 July - and The Ring (1927), an expressionistic romance set in the world of sideshow boxing that screens at Hackney Empire this Friday.

Key for me is 1929’s Blackmail, a superb thriller in which Hitchcock shows his immediate mastery of the new talking technology (he even uses silence to great effect!). He steps up the confident rhythm of the preceding films and continues to experiment with his visuals; there’s an early signatory cameo – being attacked by a child in a tube carriage – plus a tumultuous chase after the blackmailer of the title in the British Museum onto the roof of the reading room. (Blackmail screened at the British Museum on Friday.)

If you want to check out some other lesser-known (talkie) numbers, the trademark spectacular finales continue in courtroom drama Murder! (1930), while another film based on a play, The Skin Game (1931), is the cruel tale of landed gentry taking on nouveau incomers that is still as surprisingly successful as when it was released. The same year's Rich and Strange is a curio, a self-scripted tale of a childless couple’s disastrous global travels, while Number 17 (1932) is a ludicrous splurge containing all the clichés of the thriller genre: stolen jewels, double-crossing thieves, confused identity, runaway trains, a hijacked bus and – a favourite of the director – trussed up heroines. 

Courtesy of Hitchcock’s pre-eminent position in the industry the early films boast great scenery and lavish sets but it’s with sound he realised thrillers were his thing and, just as importantly, discovered the perversity – both morally and in terms of his little fetishes – that mark his particular genius.

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