His name is synonymous with titles such as “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” and “Rear Window,” just a few of the suspense-filled classics made by one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. But what may come as a surprise to many moviegoers is how English director Alfred Hitchcock honed many of his trademark techniques and themes in silent films. Equally surprising is that many of Hitchcock’s 1920s movies were comedies or quiet dramas, not thrillers. For the next month the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) will showcase those earlier works, a set of nine films on loan from the British Film Institute, which restored and rereleased the 35 millimeter prints in 2014. The Gazette recently spoke with HFA Director Haden Guest about Hitchcock’s early efforts and inspirations.
GAZETTE: Why choose a series devoted to Hitchcock’s early silent films?
GUEST: Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most iconic and influential filmmakers of all time, a hyperbolic but accurate claim, and yet his early silent films for many reasons remain less well known. A number of years ago the British Film Institute restored several of the nine extant films Hitchcock made during the silent era, the first, “The Pleasure Garden,” made when he was only 25 years old. The HFA program includes all of these films. What’s incredible about these early works is how clearly you can see and understand his emergence as the master of suspense: You can find many of the key ideas of Hitchcock’s mature cinema expressed vividly in his silents, especially in “The Lodger,” his film about a mysterious tenant who might be a serial killer, a film about shifting identity and doubt that points all the way forward to “Psycho” in 1960.
GAZETTE: Can you say more about how his silent films highlight some of his earliest creative inspirations?
GUEST: Hitchcock’s ability to push the possibilities of film as an expressive medium is wonderfully showcased in these early films: how to tell a story efficiently and expressively through images, something that continues throughout his career. Think about the dialogue-less opening sequence in “Marnie” with its extended close-up of Tippi Hedren’s handbag, or the masterful crop-duster scene in “North by Northwest,” also largely dialogue-free. At the same time, Hitchcock was very much influenced by certain trends and movements of the silent era, most especially German Expressionism, a kind of imaginative thinking about space, and place, and mood. He was deeply interested in contemporary German cinema and spent time at the Ufa studios to study how films were being made there. Hitchcock’s first two films were, in fact, made in Germany. But it is his third film, “The Lodger,” that best reveals a Germanic influence: The film is steeped in the fatalist, gothic modernist style of German Expressionism.