Silent treatment: Rialto releases Alfred Hitchcock's little-seen early films in sparkling restorations

He may have been the most famous film director in the world, but for years it has been next to impossible to see Alfred Hitchcock's seminal works. New restorations of nine of his earliest titles will be touring the country this summer, giving viewers the chance to gain a fuller understanding of how the "Master of Suspense" evolved.

As its contribution to the Queen's Jubilee in 2012, the British Film Institute set out to restore nine silent films Hitchcock directed between 1925 and 1929. (A tenth title, The Mountain Eagle, remains lost.) The three-year project became the largest in the Institute's history, one that required the cooperation of museums and archives around the world.

Speaking from her office in London, Briony Dixon, the BFI's curator of silent film, describes the work that went into restoring Hitchcock as "the project of a lifetime for me." The Institute already had materials on all the Hitchcock silent films, holdings that went back to the 1940s. But the condition of the films varied widely, and only one—The Lodger—had ever been restored previously.

Easy Virtue, an adaptation of a Noel Coward play, was in especially poor shape. The BFI's copy was a 16mm print that was missing about 30 minutes from the original release.

For The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock's debut as a director, Dixon and her staff worked from five different elements, including prints from France and the Netherlands. "That's the difficult bit," she concedes, "that takes months of work, because you have to go frame by frame over several different versions. You have all five elements playing at the same time, and you have to decide among them which scenes would have gone in which order. Which would have been in the original British release version, which might have belonged to other versions."

Complicating matters was the absence of any shooting scripts or continuity records, in fact any business papers at all from the two studios that employed Hitchcock at the time. The records for both Gainsborough and British International Pictures were lost in the Blitz during World War II.

"We had to do this all forensically," Dixon explains. "We had to examine every frame of every version we could lay our hands on to determine the location of splices, dissolves, fades, all that sort of thing. Even prints that were rotting in the can were of use. However deteriorated the film was, it was still valuable."

The BFI scanned the prepared elements at 4K; Dixon and her technicians then worked on 2K digital intermediates before they went back out to film or DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). The work of cleaning frames and stabilizing images was done manually as well. "We don't do automatic dust-busting," she insists. "And preserving the grain is crucial. There's no point in making the films look like HD television."

Three of the BFI prints had color sequences: The Pleasure Garden, Downhill, and The Lodger, which had both tinting and toning. "We were able to copy from existing, original vintage prints and get a pretty good idea of what the scheme was," Dixon says. "They vary from print to print, it's a very inexact science, but we've done considerable analysis on the colors and they're full-on, absolutely correct."

The colors in The Lodger may be aggressive by modern tastes, but they accentuate the film's nightmarish premise in which a landlady suspects her new boarder is a serial killer. The director later said that The Lodger was the "first true 'Hitchcock' film," and its themes would recur throughout his career in films like Shadow of a Doubt and The Wrong Man.

In later interviews, notably with Peter Bogdanovich and the French director François Truffaut, Hitchcock could be dismissive of his silent work. If you view cut-down, poorly duped 16mm bootlegs of films—versions of which are still available on YouTube and the Internet Archive—you might agree with the director that these are primitive, rudimentary movies.

But in the BFI's sparkling restorations, titles like The Manxman and The Ring take on new life. Suddenly they are on a par with, if not superior to, the best American silents of the period.

Hitchcock's mastery of visuals—his startling camerawork and equally daring editing—becomes easier to appreciate. And in these fuller, more complete restorations, we can see just how revolutionary his sense of narrative was.

Dixon agrees that Hitchcock's command of storytelling was far more advanced than his colleagues'. "Hitchcock learned how to put a story together from his wife Alma Reville and from screenwriter Elliot Stannard," she says. "Alma was a genius at continuity, at refining little items so Hitchcock wouldn't have to explain them onscreen. And Stannard knew how to structure and condense so that everything was either contributing to atmosphere or moving the story along. Whatever you may think of silent films, and they may not be your cup of tea, the Hitchcock silents move a lot. They're extremely efficient. There are no draggy bits."

The Hitchcock 9 series will be crossing the United States this summer in a tour put together by the BFI, Park Circus/ITV Studios, and Rialto Pictures/StudioCanal. Eric Di Bernardo, sales director for Rialto, says that the complete series will screen in ten cities, with others possibly added later. While filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton have been the subject of retrospectives, what makes the "Hitchcock 9" unprecedented is that the films will be screened with live music at some of the most prestigious repertory theatres in the country.

The theatres include the Castro in San Francisco; the National Gallery and the AFI Silver Spring in Washington, DC; the Music Box in Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. BAM will be showing the Hitchcock 9 on its new screen at the Harvey Theater, an 800-seat auditorium that opened in 1904 as the Majestic Theatre.

"Silent film" is something of a misnomer, as almost all theatres of the time offered some form of musical accompaniment to their movies. From a single piano to a full orchestra, music helped draw viewers into a story, building suspense, deepening romance, highlighting laughs. For this summer's tour, live music will be offered at every venue.

And for Di Bernardo, that makes the "Hitchcock 9" series essential viewing for true film fans. "Telling me that watching a dupe on your laptop is the equivalent of going to the Harvey or the Music Box and seeing that film projected pretty much as it was back in the year it opened, with live musical accompaniment? That's the experience we're giving audiences."

Hitchcock, who broke into the business as a title designer and art director, was recognized as someone special right from the beginning of his career. As a result, he worked with the leading figures in British culture. "He had an almost clear field," Dixon marvels, "and was in constant demand."

"Hitchcock is an evergreen," Di Bernardo believes. "I don't want to use the word 'brand' because it sounds so impersonal, but he's an artist people never grow tired of."
What may surprise viewers today is how intensely Hitchcock focused on romance in his early silents. The Pleasure Garden, The Manxman and especially The Lodger employ the same type of romantic triangles the director would use in classics like Notorious and North by Northwest. The silents also make full use of Hitchcock's preoccupation with guilt, suspicion, black humor and twisted sexual appetites. In short, they are extraordinary works of art.

When he left Great Britain at the end of the 1930s, Hitchcock traded away some of his creative freedom for Hollywood's more abundant resources. But as the "Hitchcock 9" films prove, he was already a world-class director.