The surest way to see if a film makes strong visual sense is to watch it with the sound turned off, a test plenty of today’s movies would fail, given how many filmmakers rely on exposition and voiceovers to move things along. The chance to watch one of the great visual masters at work without sound, on the big screen and with live musical accompaniment, no less, is one of the rarest of pleasures—particularly at a time when the concept of the “movie event,” as it plays out at the multiplex week after week, has become so distorted that it’s ceased to mean anything at all.
BAMcinématek’s presentation of nine fully restored silent films by Alfred Hitchcock—a touring series that goes by the suitably dangerous-sounding name “The Hitchcock 9″—is a real movie event, for more reasons than one. For most filmgoers, seeing any silent movie on the big screen, with live orchestral or piano accompaniment, is a novelty in itself. But these Hitchcock rarities—several of which will be projected on the new, 35-by-19-foot Steinberg Screen at the BAM Harvey Theater—have been restored by the BFI (in association with StudioCanal), the images polished to pristine glory. Watching them in this form is like hitting the refresh button on movie history.
Even more significantly, these silents help answer a fascinating question: Who was Hitchcock before he was Hitchcock? By this point, the likes of Vertigo and Rear Window have been analyzed within an inch of their blond roots. But Hitchcock’s silent films, made mostly in his native England years before his move to Hollywood, are practically virgin territory, as yet unmarked by 1,001 film theorists. The series includes comedies, like the 1928 Champagne, in which Betty Balfour plays a party-happy heiress whose millionaire dad tries to teach her a lesson by feigning bankruptcy, and the 1927 drama Easy Virtue, adapted from a Noël Coward play, about a society woman whose husband falsely accuses her of infidelity. What seems like technical simplicity is deceptive: These movies were made before Hitchcock belonged to the world, but they show a young filmmaker trying out all manner of visual techniques to move the story along with utmost effectiveness. Sometimes those touches are fanciful in ways we might not expect from the master of suspense: In Champagne, a complete orchestra appears, reflected in miniature, in the bottom of a drained champagne glass, a metaphor for decadence shrunken down to manageable size.
What’s most striking about these films is their stripped-down elegance. Later in his career, Hitchcock called silent films “the purest form of cinema. . . . The only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises.” Even at the beginning of his career, Hitchcock stuck to the essentials—his thinking unfolds clearly in the images he uses, accompanied by very few words. It’s revelatory, for instance, how few title cards are needed in both the thriller Blackmail (1929), in which a young woman kills a would-be rapist only to find herself at the mercy of a slippery delinquent, and the glorious 1927 romantic melodrama The Ring, a love story about two boxers and the woman they fight for.
Both movies show the meticulousness, the specificity of detail, that would mark Hitchcock’s work through the rest of his career. He also appears to be having great fun trying out novelty effects: In Blackmail, a two-bit hood picks up on the presence of cops in the room when he sees their reflection in a prism dangling from a wall sconce; there’s also a rudimentary split-screen effect in which two characters simultaneously process the information from a single phone call. These innovations may now seem like the oldest tricks in the book, but they live on for a reason.
But the chief reason to see “The Hitchcock 9” on the big screen is to bask in how gorgeous the films are—the satiny quality of the images is the stuff of moviegoing euphoria. The Ring, in particular, shimmers with a romantic idealism we don’t usually associate with Hitchcock: Two lovers, in a moment of contentment that’s about to be broken, gaze at their image reflected in a pool. The sequence is luminous and hypnotic, reminiscent of another deeply romantic picture, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, also made that year. This is a Hitchcock we don’t often see, a filmmaker with his training wheels still on, eager to prove how much he can do. “The Hitchcock 9” shows genius taking shape, frame by frame, sneaking up on us without the benefit of words. There is no need for them.