Dial H for Hitchcock, the star of the Cultural Olympiad
Nine of the Master's earliest films are being digitally restored for the 2012 celebrations. Geoffrey Macnab on Hitch's enduring appeal
There is an irony in Alfred Hitchcock making a comeback in time for the 2012 Olympics. The greengrocer's son from Leytonstone certainly had a formidable girth – one that puts those of even the most bulky East German-era shot putters to shame – but this didn't mean he was athletic. Although he once made a film about boxing (The Ring in 1927), included plenty of tennis in his Patricia Highsmith adaptation Strangers on a Train (1951) and was said to follow West Ham's results while abroad, he rarely showed much interest in sport.
However, Hitchcock was born in East London, within spitting distance of this summer's Olympic venues, and that alone is enough to qualify him as a star competitor in this year's Cultural Olympiad. Nine of his silent films have been restored and will be shown with new scores as part of the London 2012 Festival.
These silent films remain relatively obscure, at least by comparison with such celebrated later Hitchcock movies as Psycho (1960) or The Birds (1963). They've rarely been shown to best advantage in recent years. One (debut feature The Pleasure Garden) has been screened with footage in the the wrong order. Others, even those readily available on DVD, are in a shocking state of disrepair. Different versions have had different running times. Some have included the wrong takes.
"We've gone back with every one of the 'Hitchcock nine' to the earliest materials we could find, and used state-of-the-art digital technology to scan it frame by frame and grade it," explains Brian Robinson, Communications Manager, Archive and Heritage, at the British Film Institute (BFI) (which has overseen the restorations). "It is like detective work and architecture. In some cases, you're rebuilding films."
Robinson likens these silent movies, which include stories about showgirls (The Pleasure Garden), serial killers (The Lodger) and disgraced public schoolboys on the slide (Downhill), to the work of old masters. "If you had some early sketches by Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, you wouldn't want them being seen in anything other than the best possible frame, without scratches or mould or dirt. We are cleaning them up and making them as bright and crisp as we can. Early indications are that the results are stunning."
This isn't an anniversary year for Hitchcock (1899-1980). However, once the "Hitchcock nine" have been rehabilitated during the 2012 Festival, the Hitchcock bandwagon will continue to roll. As part of "The Genius of Hitchcock", there will be a full retrospective of his work at BFI Southbank. Several new films about Hitchcock are being planned. Scarlett Johansson is playing Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville). Sienna Miller is playing Tippi Hedren opposite Toby Jones's Hitchcock in Julian Jarrold's new BBC film The Girl. And there will also be a special focus on Hitchcock's Titanic movie. Recent research by film historian Charles Barr has revealed how close the director came to making a film about the ill-fated liner. This would have been his first Hollywood movie.
Producer David O Selznick had already started to negotiate to buy a very big ship that Hitchcock would have been allowed to sink. But, by the time the Second World War started, the project – which would have highlighted British failure and rifts within the country's class system – was considered too downbeat to continue with.
Hitchcock is also likely to be back in the news when the results are announced later this year of Sight & Sound's 2012 poll of the 10 greatest films of all time. (A decade ago, when the poll was last held, critics voted Hitchcock's Vertigo No 2 in the list behind Citizen Kane. It will be a major surprise if the film doesn't feature high up again).
For the 2012 organisers, revisiting Hitchcock in the year of the London Olympics is logical. As Britain's "greatest" film-maker and as someone who so often foregrounded London in his work, he is a natural choice to represent the glories of British cinema. Hitchcock, who made propaganda films during the Second World War and had a genius for marketing, would realise exactly why.
In Me and Hitch, his short memoir of his time working on The Birds, Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain) portrayed him as a vain and fussy film-maker overly concerned with critical respectability and determined to make The Birds his crowning achievement. John Russell Taylor's biography accentuates his appetite for practical jokes: "Hitchcock used his maximum ingenuity to get gigantic pieces of furniture installed in friends' tiny flats while they were away, or would come up with weird birthday gifts like 400 smoked herrings... he paid a studio prop man a pound to let himself be handcuffed overnight, then immediately before gave him a drink liberally spiked with a strong laxative." Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius played up the chaos and cruelty in his life as well as the misplaced erotic longing. Anyone reading François Truffaut's book-length interviews with him would have been struck by how thoughtful and articulate he was about his craft.
Some accounts portray Hitchcock as a relentless populist, others as a cultural snob. He was a huge admirer of Soviet silent cinema, drawing heavily on its theories of montage, and he was also called the "father of the modern horror film" and (most commonly) "the master of suspense". He seems to have an equal appeal for artists such as Douglas Gordon and Johan Grimonprez as for hard-bitten genre fans who have relished the shock tactics with which his later work became associated. Feminists and psychoanalysts have pored over his films in fetishistic detail. Hitch has been both excoriated as a misogynist and championed for the way he analyses the plight of women in a patriarchal world. He made so many movies over such a long period that he resists categorisation. There are as many anecdotes about his kindness as about his cruelty. For any one interpretation of his work, there will always be another, which takes a different tack. Each generation or group tends to remould him in its own image.
Hitchcock always adapted with relish to technological change. In Blackmail (1929), his first talkie, he used sound far more inventively than any of his British contemporaries. He was quick to embrace television, directing and hosting Alfred Hitchcock Presents and shooting Psycho with his television crew.
One reason that Hitchcock remains so intriguing and so endlessly topical is that he never quite became respectable. There was huge excitement in late 1971 when Hitchcock returned to London to make Frenzy (1972), but he confounded expectations by making one of his most lurid and sadistic films. Frenzy combined the deadpan British humour of his much earlier London-set films with graphic scenes of murder and rape fit for the era of Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange.
With the Olympics beckoning, Hitchcock is being fêted all over again. The work, though, retains its miasmatic whiff and its unending ability to disorient and wrong-foot viewers. His status as one of British cinema's most venerated Old Masters is unchallenged but however pristinely they're restored, his films themselves remain as perverse as ever – and that, of course, is why we cherish them.
The Genius of Hitchcock, BFI Southbank, London SE1, 28 June to 21 July. Charles Barr on Hitchcock's Titanic Project: 11 April, 6.20pm (www.bfi.org.uk)
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