Too scary for words

The cinematheques present Hitchcock's silent films.

Alfred Hitchcock (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alfred Hitchcock
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If there is one filmmaker everyone loves, from lowbrows to the most demanding cinema snobs, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. Throughout the course of his 54-year career, he entertained more people, while making films that were brilliant, terrifying, funny, glamorous, suspenseful and original, than anyone else. He made wonderful films in every decade during which he worked, including such classics as Psycho (1960), which will be remembered for the scariest shower scene in history and for the fact that Hitchcock killed off his heroine about 40 minutes into the film, breaking every Hollywood rule; The Birds (1963); North by Northwest (1959), the ultimate chase movie; Rear Window (1954); Strangers on a Train (1951); The Lady Vanishes (1938); The 39 Steps (1935) and so many more.
But many people today may not realize that Hitchcock started his career during the silent era. Hitchcock himself said, “Silent films are the purest form of cinema.”
His silent films were critically acclaimed and were commercial successes, and now nine of them have been restored by the British Film Institute in what has been billed as the largest and most complicated restoration it has ever undertaken and will be presented as this year’s British Film Festival. These films will be shown at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa cinematheques from February 20 to March 15. The British Film Festival is the flagship event of the British Council. Few moviegoers have seen these films, so this is a once-in-a lifetime experience to watch them on the big screen.
In addition to restoring and presenting the films, this festival adds another element: live music. There was usually live piano accompaniment when the films were originally shown, and a number of Israel’s leading musicians will provide music for these screenings, among them Eran Tzur, Daniel Solomon, Wisam Gibran, Karni Postal and Mark Eliyahu.
Hitchcock began his career designing titles for movies and in five years became a director. His first big hit was The Lodger in 1926. Starring Ivor Novello, the film is about a London landlady who suspects that her lodger is the madman who is killing blonde-haired women and girls all over the city. Hitchcock considered this his first real suspense film, and its spare, frightening story was the template for so many of his later films. Based on a novel inspired by the Jack the Ripper story, this film featured many touches that would become hallmarks of Hitchcock’s style. Among them are innovative shots, such as the opening, in which a blonde actress playing a murder victim lay on a sheet of glass and was photographed from below. This was also the first of his films in which he made a cameo appearance, but it reportedly came about due to necessity: One day, he didn’t have enough extras on the set.
Among the other films in the festival are The Pleasure Garden, The Manxman, Easy Virtue (an adaptation of a Noel Coward play), The Ring, The Farmer’s Wife, Downhill, and Champagne.
The festival includes Blackmail (1929), which was conceived and shot as a silent film but then was redone as a sound film. The movie, which was the first British talkie, was released with the tagline “See It and Hear It – Our Mother Tongue As It Should Be Spoken.”
Another intriguing program is being held this weekend at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. In conjunction with Israel Railways, there will be a retrospective of movies in which trains feature prominently. These films include Buster Keaton’s The General; the recent Jeremy Irons movie Night Train to Lisbon; High Noon with Gary Cooper; and, of course, Throw Momma from the Train. They will be presented with an Israel Railways video about the history of trains in Israel.