Silent But Deadly

Left: Alfred Hitchcock, Blackmail, 1929, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 85 minutes. Right: Alfred Hitchcock, The Ring, 1927, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 108 minutes.

IN THE INDISPENSABLE book-length series of interviews François Truffaut conducted with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, the British director is asked by his worshipful interlocutor to say “a few words on silent films, in general.” The Master of Suspense ends a brief disquisition on the changes to cinema wrought by the advent of sound with this maxim: “Summing it up, one might say that the screen rectangle must be charged with emotion.” As abundantly demonstrated in “The Hitchcock 9”—a traveling program of brand-new restorations of the director’s extant, long underseen silent films that kicks off at the new Steinberg Screen at BAM’s Harvey Theater on June 29—his impeccable instincts for enthralling those gazing at that rectangle were present at the very start of his fifty-one-year career.

Some of what would become the director’s best-known motifs—a blonde in peril, a man falsely accused, a cameo by the filmmaker himself—appear in the taut thriller Blackmail (1929), both Hitchcock’s last silent movie and his first talkie (he shot two versions). Fair-haired Alice (Anny Ondra), the sweetheart of a Scotland Yard detective (John Longden), starts seeing an artist on the sly. After some mild flirtation in his garret, the painter tries to rape Alice; she kills him with a bread knife. The distraught young woman begins to see hands clutching blades everywhere, a hallucination memorably rendered when a neon advertisement for a cocktail becomes a flashing sign of repeated stabbing motions.

That transmogrifying billboard is just one of many brilliant visual flourishes on display in this nonet. “[T]he silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” Hitchcock declared in his exchange with Truffaut, and what’s most thrilling about this series is witnessing how the man who would make Vertigo and Psycho decades later was already evincing technical virtuosity, confidently experimenting with camera and editing tricks.

“The Hitchcock 9” offers other types of discovery, too, particularly in films like The Ring (1927), which shows the director working in an atypical genre: the romantic dramedy boxing movie. Hitchcock’s sole original screenplay, The Ring opens at an amusement park (a setting he’d return to in 1951’s Strangers on a Train), where Australian pugilist Bob (Ian Hunter) makes a big impression on carnival ticket taker Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) after knocking out her boyfriend, “One Round” Jack (Carl Brisson), and giving her a serpentine gold bangle. Hitchcock plays with reflections—in mirrors, on bodies of water, at the bottom of a champagne glass—and distorts reality altogether, waggishly depicting a drunk’s POV. This jocularity, rarely associated with Hitchcock films, appears throughout The Ring, particularly at Mabel and Jack’s wedding: Siamese twins and other fairground attractions fill up the pews; a groomsman hopelessly fumbles with the wedding band. But whether anomalous or presaging the director’s later classics, the titles in “The Hitchcock 9” prove what Truffaut so ardently believed: “In Hitchcock’s work a film-maker is bound to find the answer to many of his own problems, including the most fundamental question of all: how to express oneself by purely visual means.”

“The Hitchcock 9” runs at BAMcinématek June 29 through July 3.