Looking at Alfred Hitchcock before anyone realized what ‘Hitchcockian’ meant

A Harvard Film Archive series, Silent Hitchcock, showcases early work by the master of screen suspense

Alfred Hitchcock in 1925.
Alfred Hitchcock in 1925.

Alfred Hitchcock is the name of a famous film director. You know that. You also know that Alfred Hitchcock is, in no particular order: a brand name, selling point, and artistic guarantee (though not always: watched “Under Capricorn" lately?).

The name long ago inspired an adjective, “Hitchcockian,” meaning a braiding together of suspense, technique, and wit. Culture offers no more sincere tribute than turning artist into modifier. In shaping the vocabulary of film, Hitchcock entered the vocabulary of everyday life.

The Harvard Film Archive series Silent Hitchcock presents a young director in his pre-modifier days. Part of the enjoyment the series has to offer is getting to see various themes and visual touches we now think of as classic Hitchcock. Also part of the enjoyment — and sometimes the not-enjoyment — is seeing him contend with, and quite often surrender to, contemporary narrative conventions.


This tension between innovation and sentimentality mirrors a larger tension throughout his career: the constant struggle between suppression and urge. (It’s right there in his name.) Suppression without urge is boredom. Urge without suppression is boredom of a different sort, albeit more fun. At Hitchcock’s frequent best, no filmmaker has explored this struggle more memorably — which is to say more entertainingly and more unnervingly.

From "The Pleasure Garden."
From "The Pleasure Garden."Courtesy Park Circus and Harvard Film Archive.

Hitchcock’s first film as a director, “The Pleasure Garden” (1926), begins with one of his favorite visual motifs: a staircase. It’s of the spiral variety, and up it race chorines on their way to the stage. The Pleasure Garden is the name of the nightclub where they perform. The title also may be seen to refer to the white-man’s-burden tropical outpost where three of the main characters (one of them a chorus girl) end up. Other elements include a dog named Cuddles, a Russian prince, a honeymoon in Italy, and an attempted murder with a sword. Yes, it’s a very strange movie. Screens Jan. 26


Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Stage Fright” (1950), thanks to the show-biz element.

Ivor Novello in "The Lodger."
Ivor Novello in "The Lodger."Courtesy British Film Institute and Harvard Film Archive.

Hitchcock’s next film, “The Lodger” (1926), is on more familiar turf. It begins with a scream (seen rather than heard), followed by the flashing letters of an electric sign, a dead body, then a passerby’s look of horror. The Avenger, a Jack the Ripper-like murderer, is terrorizing London. Might he be the title character? As played by matinee idol Ivor Novello, he’s Hugh Grant suffering from the vapors. Screens Jan. 31

Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Frenzy” (1972), with its London setting and serial-killer villain.

Ivor Novello in "Downhill."
Ivor Novello in "Downhill."Courtesy Park Circus and Harvard Film Archive.

Novello also stars in “Downhill” (1927). The class system figures in nearly all these films, and that’s especially so here. Novello’s Roddy is a private school big man on campus who, taking the rap for a transgressing friend, ends up as a taxi dancer among the dregs of Marseille. It’s a morality play, full of hopeless tosh. Still, Hitchcock manages to include a hallucination sequence and a highly suggestive spurt from a soda siphon. Screens Feb. 9

Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “The Wrong Man” (1957), with its theme of misplaced guilt.

Isabel Jeans in "Easy Virtue."
Isabel Jeans in "Easy Virtue."Courtesy Park Circus and Harvard Film Archive.

Speaking of hopeless tosh, “Easy Virtue” (1927) shows what happens when a blameless divorcee remarries and runs afoul of her new husband’s social-dragon mother. Technically, Hitchcock has his fun: opening with an overhead shot of a judge’s wig, then shooting through his monocle; framing a shot with a tennis racket. But form and content are almost as opposed as the wife and mother are. Screens Feb. 15


Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Rebecca” (1940), thanks to the mother-in-law being so Mrs. Danvers.

Malcolm Keen and Anny Ondra in "The Manxman."
Malcolm Keen and Anny Ondra in "The Manxman."Courtesy Rialto Pictures and Harvard Film Archive.

Matters marital also shape “The Manxman” (1929). Set on the Isle of Man, it has some striking location shots. A lawyer and a fisherman (social class!), boyhood friends, are in love with the same woman. The actress who plays her, Anny Ondra, looks a bit like Kate McKinnon. This does rather change how a contemporary viewer sees the movie. Screens Jan. 18

Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Vertigo” (1958), thanks to a watery suicide attempt.

Gordon Harker (left) and Carl Brisson in "The Ring."
Gordon Harker (left) and Carl Brisson in "The Ring."Courtesy Rialto Pictures and Harvard Film Archive

Hitchcock also examines a love triangle in “The Ring” (1927), though it’s ostensibly a boxing picture. This may be the most visually interesting film in the series, with unexpected framings, overhead shots, canted angles, tight close-ups, frames within frames, reflections in water, a frequently moving camera. Yet the overall effect isn’t arty, because there’s such a general sense of dynamism. Screens Feb. 8

Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Strangers on a Train” (1951), thanks to a bravura opening sequence that involves amusement-park rides.

“The Ring” includes a broadly comic wedding sequence (yes, “ring” takes on an additional meaning). “The Farmer’s Wife” (1928), one of two comedies in the series, concerns a widowed landowner hoping to remarry. Jaw-droppingly sexist, it also has flashes of cruelty excessive even by Hitchcock standards — e.g., a woman’s being wheelchair-bound is played for laughs. Screens Jan. 25


Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), thanks to the semi-jocose look at country life.

Betty Balfour in "Champagne."
Betty Balfour in "Champagne."Courtesy Rialto Pictures and Harvard Film Archive.

The other comedy is “Champagne” (1928). It’s all very proto-screwball: a dizzy heiress, an ocean liner, Parisian high life, a financial comeuppance that isn’t. Hitchcock twice shoots through the bottom of a champagne glass. Screens Jan. 19

Later Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (1941), an outright (if sadly unsuccessful) screwball comedy.

Anny Ondra in "Blackmail."
Anny Ondra in "Blackmail."Courtesy Rialto Pictures and Harvard Film Archive.

“Blackmail” (1929) is recognizably “Hitchcockian” as none of the other films are. Trim and efficient, it offers crime, suspense, and unresolved moral ambiguity. There’s a degree of emotional complexity in the context of fraught action that the previous films lack. Hitchcock the artist-technician is very much on display. An attempted rape is seen via shadows and fluttering curtains. A crane shot of two characters going up several flights of stairs is at once functional and hey-look-at-me. So’s a montage of mug shots. Above all, there’s the climactic chase sequence, ending at the British Museum. Screens Feb. 1

Simultaneous Hitchcock film it looks ahead to: “Blackmail” (1929). “Simultaneous”? Hitchcock filmed a sound version, too. It screens Feb. 2.

Screenings will have live musical accompaniment from Robert Humphreville, Martin Marks, or Bertrand Laurence.

Go to harvardfilmarchive.org/programs/silent-hitchcock.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.