Alfred Hitchcock - Dial R for Restoration

How Hitchcock's first ever film made it back to the silver screen

The first ever film by Britain's greatest ever filmmaker is about to be revealed at its full length and original glory, for the first time in generations. This may sound rather hyperbolic, but when you’re talking about Alfred Hitchcock, that's often the way it goes.

The master of suspense is surely Britain's greatest cinematic export, which is why it's no surprise that the British Film Institute (BFI) is celebrating him all summer long, as the UK's cultural heritage is also dragged into the spotlight thanks to the Olympics. “Like many arts institutions we were asked what we would contribute to the celebration,” explains Bryony Dixon, BFI's silent film curator. “And there’s only really one filmmaker who stands head and shoulders above everybody, and that’s Hitchcock. So it was a no brainer for us.”

But what was Hitchcock's first film? There's no need to feel ashamed if you're slightly scratching your head – it's The Pleasure Garden, from 1925. One of his little known silent movies, it's only been available incomplete and in poor quality on DVD. Till this week that is…

For the BFI's Olympian, Hitchcockian project has been a huge restoration of 'The Hitchcock Nine' – his first nine silent films. They raised a hefty £2million in order to complete four years of painstaking work, and the now the fruits of their labour go on display in a series of screenings with new scores from musical artists including Nitin Sawhney and Soweto Kinch.

And not before time. “It was a project I wanted to do for a very long time,” says Robin Baker, the BFI's head curator. “It does seem kind of extraordinary that you could have one of your country's leading artists and people can only access [the early work] in a way that it looks pretty rubbish. For me, the analogy would be – how would we feel if we could only get Dickens in Reader’s Digest version or all the Turners were covered with the filth of centuries?”

But that's not to say that getting rid of the filth of centuries – or decades at least – was going to be easy. I visited the BFI's archives in Berkhamstead to see first hand the restoration of The Pleasure Garden. The original negative is now lost, so the first job was to find as many prints as possible. In total, the archive managed to source five, one from their own archive, two from America, one from France and one from the Netherlands.

None of the films were the same, with major differences in story, length, tone and atmosphere. “The ending is missing from the print we had at the [BFI] archive,” explains Claire West, the technical archivist with the job of scrolling through the prints and puzzling them together to make the most complete narrative possible. Naturally, missing the ending makes quite a big difference...

“I thought it ended in a rather strange downbeat way. In the other [American] version, there’s a happy ending. But the mood in [our] archive print is very different: it feels more like a straightforward thriller-melodrama, a lot of the humorous elements have been taken out.” Her hunch is that such cuts might have been made, some time after its original release, to emulate the style and success of Hitchcock's third, moodier thriller, The Lodger.

Dixon is having none of such a theory, however, blaming the cuts on practical concerns. “There are all sorts of different reasons for abridging films... exhibitors said ‘this is too long, snip-snip-snip’. These thing were coming out one a week, they weren’t the precious artefacts we think of them today. The print we’ve got has this set of characters that’s systematically been taken out of the film; they’ve done it deliberately – it’s not careless,” she insists, but adds that although such an edit made it shorter, “it does mean the pacing of the film is all wrong, and there are times when the continuity doesn’t work.”

The upshot of the restoration is that their 'definitive' version of The Pleasure Garden, sewn together, restoring those characters, shots and sequences that had been snipped out, is now a full 20 minutes longer than any surviving single print. It’s almost back to the 90 minute running time of Hitchcock's original.

This makes the movie much more coherent and therefore more enjoyable for a modern audience - who aren’t used to the conventions of silent films anyway, and who really struggled with a dodgily abridged one. For film scholars, it may well prompt a thorough re-evaluation; Baker insists that the restoration will “completely transform how people understand that film.”

There are various cute moments that have been put back in, such as a close up on an apple with a bite out of it the morning after a wedding night (very droll, Alfred), or a shot of - how British – a cup of tea. “Hitchcock doesn’t photograph things for the hell of it, it’s got to be there for a reason,” puzzles Dixon, before explaining that when they added it to a sequence, it's significance became apparent. There, floating on the surface of the tea, is a stray tea leaf, which – according to an old wives tale that 1920s audiences would have known – signifies that a stranger will visit. Lo and behold, a dastardly stranger does turn up: and the tea leaf is the very first hint that all is not well, an “ominous omen” as Dixon puts it.

Fans and academics alike can play a good game of spot-the-Hitchcock-trope, too. Baker insists that the Nine are “central to an understanding of the later work of Hitchcock – if you’re not looking at those, you don’t see where his starting point is. For me, what’s so fascinating is he emerges as a director almost fully formed in those obsessions, and desires to push the boundaries of what cinema can be.” As he points out, in the very first shot of this very first film, we've got a chorus line of icy blondes. We're in a theatre - another Hitchcock motif. And guess what the second shot is? Yep – here comes the voyeurism – it's a line of old blokes, looking at said blondes, through opera glasses. “It could almost be James Stewart in Rear Window with his camera.... you can almost keep ticking them off!” says Baker gleefully.

So, once they've re-patched the story, what next? How do these grimy old nitrate prints get turned into crisp images? First they have to be physically cleaned. Some are in a terrible old state – literally mouldy, or scratched, warped, bent and broken. Having five reels to choose from, part of the selection process is the physical state, but they also give them a good scrub.

It's Ben Thompson's job is to scan the reels, capturing each frame in a very high resolution digital image. Each frame passes through a gate with pressurised fluid in it, which refracts the light on any scratches and tears so they appear smoothed over. He frequently has to stop the machine to re-calibrate – that is, adjust the settings, so they get the contrast between black and white right; while I'm there he adjusts the aperture by 300-thousandth of a millimetre, just to make sure. It's a laborious process – each reel takes a day or so at least.

“Basically we’ll do a scan, then an edit, then the [digital] restoration takes place – to get rid of the remainder of the dirt, the scratches, the unsteadiness,” explains Thompson. This final process is actually completed by Deluxe, experts in digital film restoration, rather than on-site. They also, he explains, adjust the balance – “the tone, the contrast, the brightness of each shot”. It's at this point too that colour is added.

Oh yes – colour. Tints and tones were frequently used to give additional mood and information. “A tint is a dye that’s applied as a wash to the whole of the film; a tone replaces some of the silver image – where you would see the black portion of the image becomes blue, but the white stays white,” says Thompson. “All the original tints and tones vary slightly – or wildly – from print to print, but we’re being religious regarding the UK [print's] colours. We’ll be emulating them in the final.”  So in The Pleasure Garden you'll see blue tone, for night, while indoors during the day is a light amber. About 12 different tints are going back in to the film – practically Technicolour!

You might have thought after years spent looking at tiny frames, cleaning off dust or adjusting it by miniscule fractions of a millimetre, the team would be sick of the sight of it. Not so. “I saw the almost finished version last week, and it was amazing – like seeing it for the first time!” says West. “To see it on a big screen, all the damage taken out... it is just so incredible.”

Baker agrees, and hopes that The Pleasure Garden will help new audiences fall for silent cinema, and aid our understanding of the early work of Hitchcock. “There is something so dramatic about peeling off filth, dirt and scratches, that you see something no longer as a museum piece. When an image looks really, really good it has an immediacy which changes your engagement with the film. You appreciate a beautifully composed or framed scene for what it’s worth, instead of trying to work out a narrative through this mirage of assorted crap, really.”

So there you have it – the Cultural Olympiad: bringing you the chance to see the earliest works of Britain’s greatest filmic auteur, with the crap scraped off it. A worthy cause, if ever there was one.

The Pleasure Garden is at Wilton’s Music Hall with a score by Daniel Patrick Cohen, 28 and 29 June; The Genius of Hitchcock season continues around the capital till October(www.bfi.org.uk).

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