The Apprentice of Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock's early silent films
Regardless of the craft, to be deemed as a “Master” you need to pass through the phase of “Apprentice” or “Amateur”. It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented you already are, the period of “apprenticeship” is a period to prove yourself, hone your skills, and find your own style and voice. That was precisely the case with British director Alfred Hitchcock. Known for his work in masterpieces like Psycho, Vertigo, or North by Northwest, the man who would be later known as the “Master of Suspense” began his film career in his early 20’s working as a title card designer. However, in a relatively short time, he found his way into the director’s chair.
Hitchcock’s first experiences behind the camera weren’t the most rewarding. His first three films ended up either unfinished, flopping in the box office, or lost. In 1926, his luck changed with a silent thriller called The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, which ended up being a commercial and critical success in the United Kingdom. What followed was a series of silent films that ranged from thrillers to romantic dramas, and comedies. But regardless of the genre, one thing was constant: Hitchcock’s willingness to experiment with the camera, as well as a perennial theme of lies, suspense, and/or deceit in his films. Here’s a brief review of six of them.
The Lodger Trailer
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
The Lodger is set in London, circa 1920s, when a sudden spree of murders terrorizes people. A landlady suspects that the man who is renting one of her rooms (Ivor Novello) is the murderer, who happens to target young, blonde women like her daughter Daisy (June Tripp). The film is based on a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, about the murders of Jack the Ripper.
The mystery in this film lies in the intentions and past life of the lodger, and the questions about whether he is or isn't the killer, who calls himself "The Avenger". The mystery grows when the landlady finds a locked cupboard on the lodger's room which she suspects holds the key to his intentions. There is deceit as well, in how Daisy falls for him despite being the girlfriend of police officer Joe (Malcolm Keen).
I really wasn't much of a fan of this one the first time, but a rewatch changed my appreciation of it. Although the performances weren't that good, Hitchcock handled the suspense and mystery perfectly. I still felt the very last scene involving a lynch mob wasn't that well executed, but I still think it was an interesting watch and slightly better than I remembered it to be. Grade: B-
A scene from The Ring
The Ring (1927)
The Ring follows a small-time boxer (Carl Brisson) that has to deal with both rising fame and the threat of his wife (Lilian Hall-Davis) running away with a more successful boxer (Ian Hunter). Despite Hitchcock's long resume, this is actually his only original screenplay. He was inspired by boxing matches he attended in his hometown of London where he noticed people from all walks of life attending.
Like The Lodger before, there is a similar deceit in the way Mabel flirts with another man, while the mystery is around a snake bracelet given to her which symbolizes the love triangle she has embarked upon, both of which she tries to hide from her husband.
Seen in the 21st Century, The Ring felt very awkward. The way that a woman like Mabel behaved with the rival of his husband/lover, smitten by him and even openly flirting in public, felt very strange and weird. Then again, I don't know how things were in the 20's for young lovers. Regardless of that, I thought the film was interesting, and I was actually looking forward to how it would end. Plus, it's good to see how Hitchcock began using some cool tricks with the camera. Grade: B-
The Farmer's Wife (1928)
The Farmer's Wife follows the efforts of a recently widowed farmer (Jameson Thomas) to marry again. As he explores the possibilities of courting several acquaintances, he fails to realize that the maid (Lillian Hall-Davis) that is helping with the task is actually in love with him. Although the film's focus is its romantic/dramatic angle, it also features bits of physical comedy mostly focused on the farmer's servant, Churdles (Gordon Harker).
Through the film, Samuel's maid, Minta, manages to deceive his master by not revealing she is in fact in love with her. Instead, she helps him come up with a list of potential candidates for him to court. All the while, Samuel seems oblivious to Minta's feelings since she thinks it is unlikely he would accept her.
I have to say, this film ended up being a bit of a chore to get through. Apparently the version I saw was the long one cause it clocked in a little over 2 hours, which made it feel too overlong and stretched out for the material. The romantic-comedy angle also wasn't that effective, and the several moments of physical comedy with Churdles didn't quite gel with the plot. Plus, the premise of the story wasn't that strong to begin with. Grade: C
Easy Virtue (1928)
Easy Virtue follows the life of Larita (Isabel Jeans), a young woman who is wrongly accused of adultery. To escape the backtalks and gossips of her damaged reputation, she flees to the French Riviera where she is smitten by a rich, young man (Robin Irvine). However, after marrying him, her past comes back to haunt her. The film is loosely based on a 1924 play by Noël Coward.
The lies and deceit are present as Larita manages to hide her past from her new lover and future husband. The mystery starts to pique the curiosity of her in-laws, who suspect something is wrong with her as they try to figure out where they remember her from. However, Larita is reluctant to share her past for fear of being rejected as a woman of shady reputation.
Despite being chronologically "sandwiched" between the two weakest Hitchcock films I've seen, I really liked this one. I found the tragic story of Larita to be compelling, and the performances to be solid. I also thought Hitchcock's directing was really good, with him showing more glimpses of what he would learn to do later with the camera. Also, the ending — like with The Manxman — was surprisingly gloom and bitter. Grade: B+
Champagne follows Betty (Betty Balfour), the daughter of a wealthy businessman who wants to elope with her boyfriend (Jean Braden), much to the ire of her father (Gordon Harker). However, he devises a scheme to get back at her and teach her a lesson. This film bears the distinction of being Hitchcock's first attempt at comedy. As such, it wasn't very well received, and even Hitchcock voiced his unhappiness with the film saying "the film had no story to tell".
There is some mystery surrounding a stranger that courts Betty, much to the anger of her boyfriend. Also, Betty's father seems to hide something from her as he confesses to her that they've lost their fortune in the stock market.
I can say that — Like The Farmer's Wife before it — this film was a bit of a chore to get through. None of the characters were interesting or engaging and most of the film felt poorly executed. Like with other early films of his, there were some directing flairs from Hitchcock, which probably signaled who he would become later. But other than that, the film was an uninteresting mess that wasn't even very funny. Grade: C- if I'm generous.
The Manxman (1929)
The Manxman follows a couple of childhood friends: poor fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and rising lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen), both of which are unknowingly in love with the same woman, Kate (Anny Ondra). When Pete's advances are rejected by Kate's father, he decides to go abroad to make money while leaving Philip to take care of Kate. Meanwhile, Philip and Kate end up in love and unable to tell the truth when Pete returns. Now wealthy, Pete manages to hold Kate to her promise of marrying him much to her dismay, while Philip tries to deal with it.
Through the years, both Philip and Kate try first to deceive everybody, as they try to hide their relationship from everyone for fear of it being deemed inappropriate. When Pete reappears, they both agree to keep hiding it since Kate had promised herself to Pete. But their deceiving isn't enough to keep Pete from guessing that something is wrong with his wife.
I thought this effort was solid. The story is full of Hitchcock trademarks of lies, deceit, and mistrust, and I suppose the overall story would've been quite progressive at that time. Keen and Ondra were pretty good as the leads, while Brisson was ok, but not as good as his co-stars. As for the film, I think it was a bit too long and overdrawn (more than 2 hours) which probably hampered its effect. But still, I thought it was pretty bleak for a story of such times. Grade: B or B-
The Farmer's Wife
To sum it up...
Alfred Hitchcock's first steps into filmmaking weren't necessarily smooth ones. Some weak scripts here, or production issues there... but amidst all, one could always see the talent in his eye and mind. Like I said in the opening statement, even in his first films, he showed a penchant for themes like suspense, mystery, and deceit. Even in light films like Champagne or Easy Virtue there is mystery surrounding certain characters or certain revelations that might come to light. Plus, almost all of these early films feature one or more main characters deceiving others. Be it because of a well-planned prank (Champagne), or to hide a forbidden relationship (The Lodger, The Ring, The Manxman).
But another common Hitchcock trait that was evident even in his first films, was his willingness to experiment with the camera and show things to the audience through a different perspective. This is a trait that he held onto through all of his career where he constantly revolutionized the directing craft.
Through his career, Hitchcock would polish his director's eye and the use of those themes of mystery, suspense, and deceit into masterpieces like Psycho, Vertigo, Rope, or Dial M for Murder, among others. To see "The Master" experimenting with it in these early films is priceless. Hitchcock once said:
"Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms."
He certainly puts it in practice in these films where sound is nonexistent, leading him to rely on visuals to tell his story, something he would continue to do even in his subsequent "talkies". It certainly puts in perspective how the "apprentice" grows into the "master".
Which of these early silent Hitchcock films was your favorite?
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