Blood Embrace: The Hitchcock 9 at the Castro Theater
Summer is nigh, and to whet your appetite for the upcoming Silent Film Festival (July 19-21), the Castro Theater and the SFF are showing the Hitchcock 9, the British Film Institute’s series of nine recently restored silent films by the master of suspense. While some are significant mostly to completists bent on viewing every film in Hitchcock’s oevre, the series also includes classics such as Blackmail and The Lodger, which are required viewing for British film followers, silent movie aficionados, and Hitchcock fanciers alike.
The series opens with the silent version of Blackmail (1929), which Hitchcock simultaneously directed as a talkie. Although Hitchcock had only began his directing career 1923, Blackmail is a fully formed Hitch film complete with transference of guilt, significant objects (knife and glove), expressionistic lighting, and a climactic chase scene at a landmark location, here the British Museum of Art, as well as the first of many Hitchcock cameos that would follow in his career. Demonstrating the director’s growing mastery of the cinematic language, the first half of the film has very few intertitles, as Hitchcock confidently reveals the narrative through evocative compositions and lighting, unusual camera angles, and other filmic devices. Every scene is a gem, utilizing vignetting, mirrors, shadows, and camera movement to underscore plot points or to emphasize a character’s state of mind. At one point, after the heroine has wandered the streets in a dazed fugue, she spies a neon sign that subliminally changes from a cartoon of cocktail shaker to silhouette of a stabbing knife. In another scene, Hitchcock tightly frames three pairs of hands in a pantomimed exchange, followed by a tilt up to the characters’ faces, thus underscoring the trio’s fraught relationship. The film’s climax at the museum includes an iconographic shot of a man descending a rope next to a huge sculptural face, presaging the Mount Rushmore chase scene in North By Northwest. It’s pretty impressive to see the progress in visual and thematic style between earlier films in the BFI series and Blackmail, as Hitchcock demonstrates that he was well on his way to mastering the cinematic form.
The Ring (1927) includes more early Hitch shenanigans. The story involves a love triangle between two pugilists and a carny girl and the film also includes familiar Hitchcock motifs such as the significant object, here a heart-shaped arm bracelet, plus lots of fun camerawork, double-exposures, and other tricksy manuevers that foreshadow Hitchcock’s later cinematic virtuosity. Set in the world of carnivals and circus people, the milieu recalls Hitchcock’s midcentury classic, Strangers On A Train, with its fascination for the macabre underbelly of the amusement park. Also illustrating a theme that would reappear in Hitchcock’s later work, The Ring explores the all-consuming power of lust, passion, and jealousy as the two rivals pound on each other in the boxing ring, thus externalizing their overwhelming desire for the female object of their affections.
The series also includes more obscure work such as the rom-com Champagne, and the Noel Coward adaptation, Easy Virtue. As is standard for Silent Film Festival presentations, all screenings will include live accompaniment.
June 14-16, 2013