The master of reinvention

A season of his early films shows that Alfred Hitchcock's directorial trademarks were born in Britain.

Many images of Alfred Hitchcock have made their way into media consciousness. There is the drawing of his profile; there is the mordant self-publicist, holding a crow aloft on one arm in order to tell us that "The Birds is coming"; and there is the film-maker who engineered cameos that audiences could eagerly look out for.

Hitchcock anticipated our time's preoccupation with self-defining, self-satirising celebrity, with people being famous for being famous. This is all the more remarkable because he had so little personal glamour: an overweight, conservatively dressed Englishman of lower-middle-class origins. The very first of his cameo appearances can be seen in a silent film he made in 1926, The Lodger, in a season of the early British phase of Hitchcock currently at the NFT. Subtitled "A Story of the London Fog", The Lodger is a Jack the Ripper-type mystery. Its maker himself considered it the "first true Hitchcock movie", after he had begun his career by shooting two films in Germany.

But soon after The Lodger, the director lost his sense of what a true Hitchcock movie was. In fact, for virtually the rest of his career as a silent film-maker, through the second half of the 1920s, he struggled with disparate material. He was trying to create that image of himself and his films that would be instantly recognisable in the public eye. It's the struggle, of course, that makes these some of his most fascinating films.

We all recognise the master of suspense at work in the recent Hitchcock revivals of Rebecca or North by Northwest or in a restored Vertigo or the perennially shocking Psycho (all of which come from his American period). But who would we recognise in a film called The Farmer's Wife, about a widowed farmer searching for a new mate? Or in a more serious offering like The Manxman, about star-crossed lovers on the Isle of Man?

The Hitchcock of this period seemed less interested in scaring people than in amusing them with comedies of manners. But the social detail of these films is beginning to edge towards later dreads. He was, by all accounts, a very insecure man with a well-developed fear of authority and policemen. In Downhill (1927), the story of a young man's descent after refusing to clear his name by snitching on his best friend, there's a moment of hallucination when he imagines a policeman turning into his wrathful father.

And the titles of some of these early films (The Pleasure Garden, Easy Virtue and The Skin Game) hint at a kind of kinkiness, an interest in sexual deviancy or indulgence, which was another way in which Hitchcock, the most securely married of bourgeois family men, would exorcise his fears.

It used to be said that British Hitchcock was better at realism and social observation than the sleek entertainments of his Hollywood period. But what this season also demonstrates is that such a distinction is inappropriate. All those social rituals of degradation are already trying to turn themselves into the metaphysical angst of North by Northwest and Vertigo. When he gets into the 1930s, and his well-known British sound films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Hitchcock is well on his way to reinventing himself in this fashion.

In terms of the invention of the modern Hitchcock, there's a wonderful moment in Easy Virtue (1927), an adaptation of a play by Noel Coward about a young divorcee whose attempt at a second marriage is wrecked by social prejudice and the attentions of the press. As she emerges, crushed, from her second divorce action at the end, she declares to the waiting photographers: "Shoot - there's nothing left to kill." Hitchcock later said it was the worst silent film title he ever wrote. But one can well imagine it as a line of dialogue in a modern film about the price of fame.

n At the NFT, London SE1 to 31 May. Booking: 0171-928 3232

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