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Casting a ‘White Shadow’ on Hitchcock’s career

Betty Compson played twins in “The White Shadow.” Here is Compson as the good-girl Georgina.

Betty Compson played twins in “The White Shadow.” Here is Compson as the good-girl Georgina.

You know how last year seemed to belong to Michael Fassbender and Jessica Chastain? This one looks like the year of Alfred Hitchcock.

Last summer, Sight & Sound’s prestigious critics poll named “Vertigo” the greatest film of all time. Last month, the HBO movie “The Girl” offered a dark and disquieting view of Hitchcock’s relationship to Tippi Hedren, the star of his films “The Birds” and “Marnie.” How dark and disquieting? Let’s just say that Janet Leigh’s character in “Psycho” wasn’t the only Hitchock blonde to suffer grievously at his hands. On Friday, a film about the making of “Psycho,” “Hitchcock,” opened, with Anthony Hopkins as the director. Hannibal Lecter + Richard Nixon = Hitch?

Compson as the bad-girl Nancy.

Compson as the bad-girl Nancy.

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What may be this year’s most interesting bit of Hitchcockiana — certainly it’s the least expected — is available for viewing at www.filmpreservation.org, the website of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

It’s a 1924 English silent film, “The White Shadow,” which was long thought lost. More accurately, it’s the film’s first three reels, lasting a little more than 40 minutes (the remainder of the film remains missing). The footage was found last year at the New Zealand Film Archive in canisters marked “(Twin Sisters) with Betty Compson” (the film’s star). Some inspired sleuthing by the NFPF’s Leslie Anne Lewis revealed the film to be “The White Shadow.”

What made this a big deal is that “The White Shadow” is as close to being a Hitchcock film as a movie can get without actually qualifying. The director was Graham Cutts, a leading English filmmaker of the ’20s. With that name, he should have been an editor. Hitchcock was the actual editor. He also not only wrote the script, based on a novel by the English dramatist Michael Morton, but was assistant director and art director. Not bad for someone in his mid-20s.

Hitchcock was in his mid-20s when the film was made.

Hitchcock was in his mid-20s when the film was made.

“The White Shadow” is the sort of hokey melodrama that flourished during the silent era. The plotting is shameless. The settings are overblown (an English country manor, a Parisian cabaret). The emotions are excessive.

Compson plays twins: naughty Nancy and good girl Georgina. Nancy seems more high-spirited than evil, and Georgina’s kind of a drip. Compson’s pleasure in playing the two parts is palpable. It almost compensates for Clive Brook’s very evident boredom as an American playboy who falls in love with one and ends up mistaking the other for her.

Despite its limitations (all right, maybe because of them) “The White Shadow” moves along briskly, considerably helped by Michael D. Mortilla’s new score, for piano, violin, and percussion. But that’s not why people will be watching “The White Shadow” online for the next two months, which is how long the NFPF will be posting it. They’ll be watching to see how Hitchock it is.

Yes, there is a staircase. No there isn’t a blonde. No, Hitchcock doesn’t make a cameo appearance (a practice that commenced three years later, in the third feature he directed, “The Lodger”).

What’s most Hitchcock about it is what drives the movie: doubling, impersonation, and mistaken identity. Again and again, one or all show up in Hitchcock. Hello, “Vertigo”! They’re in “Rope,” “The Wrong Man,” “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” and so on. Is it too much to say that Nancy and Georgina haunt the Hitchcock filmography? Of course it is. But neither will they ever have to worry about getting a reservation at the Bates Motel.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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