The Early Hitchcock Collection: Silent Films Review
[The Early Hitchcock Collection is a nine-disc box set, which I am covering in two reviews. None of the films are released separately by Optimum.]
Alfred Hitchcock directed nine silent features, of which four are included in this box set. Another three are available in Network’s Hitchcock: The British Years. The two remaining are The Mountain Eagle (1926), which has been lost since the late 1920s, and Easy Virtue (1928), which is released on DVD by WHE Home Entertainment. The one that made Hitchcock’s name was his third feature, The Lodger. It remains his most-often-shown silent in part because it’s the only one of the nine close to the suspense/thriller genre that Hitchcock became famous. Yet his other silents should not be neglected. They include melodramas and comedies. Hitchcock was finding his voice – if such an expression could be used before the cinema was able to speak – and he was also developing his style. His first two features, The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, were filmed in Germany, at the same time as F.W> Murnau was working there. Hitchcock followed Murnau’s lead of reducing the amount of intertitles – though not to Murnau’s extreme of using none at all, as in The Last Laugh - and finding, where possible, visual means to tell his stories. Even a very wordy play like The Farmer’s Wife underwent this process on its way to becoming cinematic.
The Ring (85:56)
The Ring was Hitchcock’s fifth feature, following Downhill and The Lodger, all three of which were released in 1927. As a story, it’s standard melodrama: Jack Saunders (Carl Brisson) is a fairground prizefighter who is nicknamed “One Round Jack” as that is how long you are expected to last in a fight with him. He is challenged and beaten by Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Bob is really a champion boxer who hires Jack as his sparring partner. But Bob has an ulterior motive: he is in love with Jack’s wife Nellie (Lilian Hall Davis). And as Jack and Nellie’s marriage comes under strain, it’s Bob she turns to for comfort.
The film was Hitchcock’s first solo writing credit, though Alma Reville did some uncredited work on the script. It’s not the writing that stands out about The Ring, though, but Hichcock’s directorial flair. He tells the story visually, using recurring symbols – the ring of the title does not just refer to the boxing arena – and expressionistic touches. The final boxing match is a tour de force of rapid cutting and deliberate visual distortions, such as the image going in and out of focus when a punch lands home. It’s not hard to guess that Martin Scorsese drew on this – among other boxing films – when he made Raging Bull. The Ring is one of Hitchcock’s best silents.
The Farmer’s Wife (94:02)
Hitchcock’s first film of 1928 was a complete change of pace. Eden Philpott’s play was popular at the time. Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is a well-off farmer whose wife has recently died. He decides to remarry and with the help of his housekeeper Araminta (Lilian Hall Davis) he meets the local single women…only to find (eventually) that true love is rather closer to hand.
The play was a very talky piece, but Hitchcock rejected the usual method of filming plays: shooting the characters talking while serving up the dialogue via intertitles every ten or twenty seconds. Instead, he and his frequent writing collaborator Eliot Stannard pare down the play as much as they can, preferring to use visual means as much as possible to tell the story. The result is attractively photographed (by John J. Cox, Hitchcock’s regular DP at the time), and at times quite amusing film, if at first sight completely uncharacteristic of its director.
Hitchcock followed The Farmer’s Wife with another stage adaptation, from Noel Coward, Easy Virtue. That film is not included in this box set, but his third release of 1928, Champagne is. Betty (Betty Balfour) is a spoiled rich girl, who lives the high life on the back of her father’s champagne business. To teach her a lesson, her father (Gordon Harker) pretends that his business has folded, and Betty has to find her own way in the world.
Champagne was a favourite drink of Hitchcock, and this film is as lightweight and bubbly as its namesake. It’s minor Hitchcock at best. Aficionados will enjoy some visual flourishes, such as the mouth’s-viewpoint drinking scenes at the beginning of the end. A giant-sized champagne glass was made at great expense so that Hitchcock could achieve these shots. Also, note the scene where Betty is reduced to applying for work at a modelling agency. Behind her, and unknown to her, a man lifts her skirt with his foot so that he can check out her legs.
The Manxman (80:06)
Based on a novel by Hall Caine, The Manxman was Hitchcock’s final silent film, and it ranks amongst his best. It’s the story of lifelong friends Pete (Carl Brisson), a Manx fisherman, and Phil (Malcolm Keen), a lawyer. Pete wants to marry Kate (Anny Ondra), but her father disapproves. Pete leaves the island to seek his fortune elsewhere and asks Phil to look after Kate. But Phil is also in love with Kate and when Pete is reported lost at sea, they marry. But Pete is not dead…
Again, this is creaky and rather dated melodrama, but it’s the cinematic treatment that enlivens The Manxman. Not least is the location filming – albeit in Cornwall rather than the Isle of Man, as it was nearer – which gives the film a surface verisimilitude that prefigures the neorealist movement more than a decade later. And in Anny Ondra (a German-Czech actress, born in what was then part of Austria-Hungary but is now in Poland) he found the first great “Hitchcock Blonde”. She would go on to star in his next film, Blackmail, which began life as another silent but was to become Britain’s first talking picture. I discuss that, and the other talkies in this box set, in the next review.
These four films form part of Optimum’s nine-disc Early Hitchcock Collection. Each disc is single-layered, in PAL format, and encoded for Region 2 only.
All films are shown at the correct ratio of 1.33:1. As for the visual quality of these films which are around eighty years old, it’s more than acceptable. The pictures can be a little soft in places, and there is minor damage and contrast flickering throughout, but short of a full-scale digital restoration this is as good as you are likely to get.
Film speed is more questionable. Finding the correct speed is a vexed issue amongst fans and scholars of silent cinema. Certainly it seems that these films are being shown a little faster than they should be. Assuming the original cinema times listed by the BBFC reflect the correct speed, the eight-minute gaps for The Ring and The Manxman would indicate an intended speed of around 23 frames per second. However, the times for The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne are more consistent with the usual 4% percent PAL speedup. However, if definitive information becomes available on this issue, I will update this review accordingly.
All four films are given piano scores in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. As such, I have very little to say: they do their job without being in any way spectacular. At least music scores have been provided, unlike on the DVDs of The Lodger (restored version) and Downhill in the Network set. Each film has twelve chapter stops.
Each film is given a short introduction by critic and filmmaker Noël Simsolo, who speaks in French and is subtitled into English. He’s an enthusiastic speaker, and the information and context he gives is generally useful, though sometimes he reveals too much of the plot for a first-time viewer. Also on each disc is a short self-navigating stills gallery which lasts around a minute.