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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions