Images courtesy of the Harvard Film Archive

Arts & Culture

Every stitch of Hitch

4 min read

Archive presents 10 weeks of British director’s films, from the silents to the ’70s

What will provide you with vertigo, frenzy, suspicion, and a touch of blackmail — in 39 steps?

The answer is rich and strange: “The Complete Alfred Hitchcock,” a summer series at the Harvard Film Archive that will include all the feature film work of an iconic director whom many consider the best of the 20th century. In a rare touch, the series also will screen nine silent films, recently restored by the British Film Institute.

The series, including more than 50 titles, is not in your rear window, but starts Thursday and runs through Sept. 28.

Among the treats for series viewers, in a touch of duality that the director would have appreciated, is the chance to see two versions of “Blackmail,” both released in 1929. The first (on screen Saturday) is a silent, the second (on screen July 21) a technical remake, an experimental talkie made on the eve of cinema’s embrace of sound.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” was a film that Hitchcock made twice, in 1934 and 1956. The first version (on screen July 28) stars a young Peter Lorre, who in real life had just fled Nazi Germany. (He plays the villain.) The second version (Sept. 9) stars James Stewart, a master of on-screen anxieties (and a Hitchcock film veteran).

Opening the series is “Vertigo” (1958), in which Stewart explores his fears as Scottie Ferguson, a police detective forced into retirement. Hired as a private investigator, the troubled Ferguson is soon at the center of a spiraling nightmare of deceit, desire, and obsession — themes that Hitchcock explored throughout his creative life.

“Vertigo” was recently named the greatest film of all time, based on a recent survey by the British Film Institute, bumping aside Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” which had held the title for 50 years.

The Harvard Film Archive has done summer retrospectives before, including on the directors Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan, and Joseph Mankiewicz, and a series of Paramount films last summer to celebrate the studio’s centennial. A Hitchcock retrospective had been on a short list for retrospective, “but we felt it needed to be big,” said archive programmer David Pendleton, who will introduce “Vertigo.”

Being big meant including the restored silent films, which went into distribution as a group only earlier this year. (The so-called Hitchcock 9 is a joint venture of BFI, Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal, and Park Circus/ITV.) Being big also means screening the vast Hitchcock canon. Only one offshoot film is missing from the Harvard series: the 1931 German-language version of the 1930 feature “Murder!,” filmed with a separate cast. The archive is still looking for a print.

“There’s a core group of films that everyone has seen,” said Pendleton, naming “Psycho” (1960) and “Rear Window” (1954) as among them. “But there is a whole other layer of Hitchcock films that really deserve to be seen on the big screen.” Among those, he said, are “The 39 Steps” (1935) and “Suspicion” (1941). These Hitchcock classics are easily available on DVD, but seldom in theaters.

Especially rare on the big screen are Hitchcock’s silent films, vehicles “in which you see a director finding his voice,” said Pendleton. There are screwball comedies and intimations of the darker films for which the director would become famous.

Playing second in the series on Friday is the expressionistic silent “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1926), with live piano accompaniment by Martin Marks. (Each of the silent films will feature live piano.) In “The Lodger,” a serial killer who attacks young blondes is at large. There is action, deceit, a mysterious stranger, a runaway mob, and a near-fatal case of mistaken identity. The film has been called Hitchcock’s first thriller.

For Harvard, the real thriller may be the series itself.

Films are screened at the Harvard Film Archive in the Carpenter Center, 24 Quincy St. Harvard students are admitted free. Harvard faculty and staff, along with seniors and non-Harvard students, pay a $7 admission. All others pay $9.