It's tempting to think we're in the midst of an Alfred Hitchcock resurgence. Last year, for the first time in half a century, a worldwide poll in Sight & Sound magazine chose Vertigo (1958) over Citizen Kane (1941) as the greatest film of all time; two biopics debuted (Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins, and HBO's universally derided The Girl); and A&E has already announced a second season of its new TV series Bates Motel, a prequel to Psycho.
But the truth is Hitchcock has always been a fixture of our fascination, from his popular films and television shows to his countless imitators (including Mel Brooks spoofs and Brian De Palma homages); in recent years, several ambitious documentaries (The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Double Take, Something's Gonna Live) have thoughtfully probed the filmmaker's legacy.
Fortunately for Angelenos, several local venues have upped the ante this month with a convergence of noteworthy Hitchcock events.
The festivities begin this week with the Cinefamily's “Hitchcock B-Sides & Rarities” running through June 26, featuring less known or appreciated Hitchcock works. Highlights include the always enjoyable 98-year-old movie icon (and Alfred Hitchcock Presents producer/director) Norman Lloyd in person on June 18, and Hitchcock's unusually restrained and gripping 1956 masterpiece The Wrong Man (screening June 21).
Another standout is the Cinefamily's June 15 program co-presented by the Academy Film Archive, which will offer Hitchcock home movies and other gems from its holdings. Archive curator Lynne Kirste will provide a live commentary for the home movies, shot by Hitchcock and his wife Alma from the 1920s onward.
“There's a lot of good material,” Kirste tells the L.A. Weekly. “Hitchcock probably shot the majority of the home movies, but he's also in them a fair amount, and he's never on screen for more than a few seconds before he starts doing some shtick. He's always hamming it up one way or another, and he's pretty funny.”
How does the Master of Suspense frame ordinary life? “You see him as a person,” Kirste says, “not with an Addams Family, macabre home, but with a normal life. He liked to shoot pictures of flowers in the garden, Alma knitting, puppies, people drinking tea, and so forth.”
An early adopter of new technologies, Hitchcock filmed some of his home movies with nascent 16mm color stocks such as Kodacolor and Kodachrome. “It's kind of amazing to see Hitchcock himself in color in 1928,” Kirste says, “because we're so used to seeing him in black-and-white.”
On June 18, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will screen Hitchcock's last silent film along with his first sound film, which happen to be alternate versions of the same movie, Blackmail (1929). Hitchcock filmed both versions, but the absence of intertitles in the sound version necessitated different editing choices and, at times, different material (including a piano performance). The story involves a young woman (Anny Ondra) and her detective boyfriend (John Longden), who find themselves at the mercy of a hoodlum who extorts demands from them in exchange for his silence.
It's fascinating to compare the two Blackmail films; both contain early manifestations of Hitchcockian trademarks such as clueless police, ominous staircases, and a climactic chase on a national landmark (in this case, the British Museum). In transferring his vision to sound, Hitchcock retains his expressionist visuals (a neon sign dissolves from cocktail shaker to stabbing weapon) but adds expressionist sounds, such as when a character jabbers on about knives, and — reflecting the heroine's mental state — the dialogue is muffled except for the word “knife,” which keeps audibly piercing the soundtrack.
Also screening at the Academy on June 19 is the 3-D digital restoration of Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) starring the exquisite Grace Kelly. No contemporary makeover, the film was originally shot in 3-D but, because of a fluke in distribution, was rarely screened in that format. While the “flat” version is considered a minor work compared to Hitchcock's other films of the period, the 3-D version is widely praised for its subtle innovation.
The biggest Hitchcock event for Angelenos will be “The Hitchcock 9” program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 27 through July 13), with live musical accompaniment featuring all nine of the filmmaker's surviving silent films digitally restored by the British Film Institute (reportedly their largest project ever).
The LACMA series includes 1926's The Pleasure Garden (Hitchcock's first feature, made at the age of 25) and the film he considered his first real artistic success, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926), about a mysterious boarding house tenant who might be a dreaded serial killer. Already, Hitchcock demonstrates a sure hand with atmosphere and the construction of chase sequences. A clever shot featuring a “transparent” ceiling reveals an upstairs character pacing back and forth, causing a chandelier to rock, confirming Hitchcock's facility with psychological imagery.
However, it's 1927's The Ring (screening July 6) that's the standout film in the series. The only movie of his long career in which Hitchcock took sole writing credit, it is, curiously, not a thriller so much as a melodrama about two boxers who gradually come to blows over a woman they both love. The film uses a rich assortment of circular visual motifs (circus rides, targets, a bracelet, and rings both sporting and romantic) and tells its story with great precision. As always, Hitchcock delights in subjective perspectives, using reflections and distorted imagery for dramatic punctuation. It solidified Hitchcock's critical reputation and paved the way for his future fame.