Early Hitchcock

No film director unites the audiences of the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre more than Alfred Hitchcock.

His movies have a unique combination of entertainment and cinematic values that can connect with many levels of film knowledge and interest.

The Redford began the year with Shadow of a Doubt on January 3 and 4, 2014. This summer, the Redford has scheduled a 70-millimeter showing of Vertigo on July 11 and 12, 2014.

The DFT and the Michigan are currently both screening a series of silent films by Alfred Hitchcock that were restored by the British Film Institute.

At the DFT, the Winter 2014 schedule includes four of the nine movies that were restored, all with accompaniment by pianist David Drazin. David will return to the DFT in the fall to accompany the other five films. David is celebrating 10 years of visits to the DFT with a new CD of music from his DFT performances.

The Michigan is using the nine silent movies as the centerpiece of an ambitious 33-film Hitchcock retrospective that began February 2 and finishes May 27.

The Hitchcock series at the DFT and Michigan give area movie fans the chance to see the silent films multiple times. They can fully savor films that they might have just discovered, and they can compare the different styles of accompaniment.

Because of maintenance work on the Barton theater organ at the Michigan, I’ve heard accompaniment to the silent films by three different types of keyboards—piano at the DFT, and Barton organ and Hammond organ at the Michigan.

When trying to compare the different instruments as silent film accompaniment, analogies to classical music come to mind.

The Barton organ accompaniment could be thought of as an orchestration of the piano accompaniment, while the piano version could be seen as a piano transcription of an organ arrangement.

The Hammond organ accompaniment exists somewhere between the theater organ and piano versions, with the lyricism of the piano and the emotional shadings of the theater organ.

But of course, there are other differences, in musical notes, arrangements, tempo, and personality. That’s one of the beauties of silent films—the individual nature of each performance, just like the many ways that a symphony or a popular song can be arranged and conducted.

Early Classics

The films themselves are revelations, because they show how Hitchcock began his famous career that lasted about 50 years. It’s surprising to learn that he wasn’t always a master of suspense.

This past weekend, I enjoyed two silent films by Hitchcock that had very little of his cinematic trademarks like lingering mysteries and sudden shocks.

Instead, they were solid entertainments by a director who was quickly developing a mastery of his craft, and would probably have become famous no matter what genre he had picked. It just turned out that he had a special talent for suspense, so that was the path he took.

The two films included a romantic comedy, The Farmer’s Wife, which David Drazin accompanied on piano at the DFT on March 1, 2014. I also saw the romantic drama The Ring, which Lance Luce accompanied on the Hammond organ in the Screening Room of the Michigan on March 2, 2014.

In both films, you could see Hitchcock’s mastery of editing, character development, shot selection, and other cinematic tricks of the trade.

The Farmer’s Wife showed a powerful understanding of comedy, which we all know played an important role in balancing out the suspenseful moments of his more famous movies.

The Ring (which I plan to see again at the DFT on March 8, 2014), included two shots that strongly conveyed a sense of depth and place.

In one shot, an outside view included a tree branch in the foreground, helping the viewer feel the natural setting of the scene. In the other shot, a boxing match is shown from the windows of two doors leading into the arena, helping to build the anticipation of the audience for the boxing match that ended the movie.

After seeing these silent films, enhanced immeasurably by the live accompaniment, I have a much greater understanding and appreciation of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, because I know the roots of his more famous films.

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Copyright © 2014 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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