Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Vintage Hitch - Bright and Bubbly

Some weeks ago, while visiting Dave Kehr's blog, I discovered the existence of three new French import box sets (from Studio Canal) cataloguing reportedly superb prints of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927-32 work. Though I had copies of most, if not all, this material in cheapo Brentwood box sets -- like THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION, which offers nine features and a documentary for only $19.98 (I found it at Best Buy for $14.98) -- and at least one of the titles (BLACKMAIL) as an exquisite Criterion Collection laserdisc with an audio commentary by screenwriter Charles Bennett, I decided to order the sets anyway, if only to provide some guidance for you, my devoted readers. I ordered them from -- somewhat blindly, as their listings itemized the contents of each set only in French. Here is a handy translation:

Disc 1: Le Masque de Cuir (THE RING, 1927) #6
A l'Americaine (CHAMPAGNE, 1928) #8
Disc 2: Laquelle des Trois? (THE FARMER'S WIFE, 1927) #7
Manxman (THE MANXMAN, 1928) #9

Disc 1: Chantage (BLACKMAIL, 1929) #10
The Skin Game (THE SKIN GAME, 1931) #13
Disc 2: Meurtre (MURDER, 1930) #12

Disc 1: A L'est de Shanghai (RICH AND STRANGE, 1932) #15
Numero 17 (NUMBER SEVENTEEN, 1932) #14
Disc 2: Correspondant 17 (FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, 1940) #25

As you probably noticed, the sets aren't really a definitive overview of Hitchcock's "first works" (none of his first five films is included), nor are they arranged in correct chronological order. (I've added numbers after each title above to show where the movies fall in the sequence of Hitchcock's 53 features.) The three sets are packaged in moss-green colored clamshell boxes with a printed contents sheet affixed to the back, which can be removed after cracking the shrinkwrap and tucked inside for future reference. Every online description of these releases I've seen lists them as offering the films in French and English -- which is true, but the French subtitles are non-removable. They are also non-disruptive, but it would be nice to have the option of not being distracted by them.

The rumors about the films' quality are true. They look beautiful -- crisp, silvery and full of detail simply not available in domestic PD prints. Many are preceded by their original British Board of Film Censorship certificates. The only detailed comparison I've done so far concerns CHAMPAGNE, included in the first set, which is available domestically as part of Brentwood's THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION. Like its companion feature in the Studio Canal set, THE RING, this 1928 silent is not in the true Hitchcock vein, being essentially a maudlin romance rather than a thriller. Hitchcock himself described it to François Truffaut as "probably the lowest ebb in my output."

CHAMPAGNE is the flimsy story of "The Girl" (Betty Balfour, pictured below), a flighty young heiress whose romance with a slick-haired young man, "The Boy" (Jean Bradin), comes to a halt after she uses her fortune to arrange a flight to his transatlantic ship, leaving her to the more suspect intentions of a sinister, older admirer, "The Man" (Theo Von Alten, pictured above). Our heroine's father, "The Father" (Harker), aiming to teach his willful child the value of money, and to test whose romantic interest is most sincere, pretends he has lost the family fortune in the stock market, leaving he and his daughter without a sou -- the stuff of comedy in 1928, destined to become the stuff of tragedy only a year later. (One can easily imagine CHAMPAGNE being remade starring Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan, if it hasn't been done already.)

Like its disc companion THE RING, CHAMPAGNE shows Hitchcock compensating for a milquetoast story by revelling in audacious (one might even say "effervescent") camera technique, montage, and opportunities for droll humor. He takes particular delight in staging a banquet hall sequence on an ocean liner suffering rocky seas, where the cast (presumably prompted by cues barked off-camera) go stumbling left or right in remarkable concert with one another. Though not Hitchcock at his best (or even half-best) by any means, CHAMPAGNE is worth watching by anyone interested in eavesdropping on people intoxicated by the untapped possibilities of cinema.

The film, which Studio Canal's info sheet lists at a mere 72 minutes, actually runs a startling 85m 11s in PAL -- which translates to 88m 49s in NTSC -- and that's without including the British Board of Film Censors certificate at the beginning. In contrast, Brentwood's CHAMPAGNE (included in THE ESSENTIAL ALFRED HITCHCOCK COLLECTION) runs 84m 56s -- and has no BBFC certificate. The Studio Canal presentation is exquisite, making the 1928 film look surprisingly fresh, with a wealth of fine detail. The piano accompaniment by Xavier Berthelot adds to the film's enjoyment, being attentive to its spirit and variety of moods, even accenting little gestures like Gordon Harker's feigned facial tic. The classical orchestra accompaniment on the Brentwood version actually scores this lighthearted, bubbly film as though it were something far more grave, like the story of a sinking ship with all hands lost. The Brentwood picture quality has no fine detail (Theo Von Alten loses all the little wrinkles around his eyes, which not only gives him a face-lift of sorts, but erases nuances of his performance) and looks pasty and smudgy by comparison.

There is a 4-minute difference between the two versions, but I didn't notice anything missing in its entirety; instead, little bits and the odd intertitle were missing from individual scenes and shots. The omissions are damaging to the two scenes which I consider the film's comic and dramatic highlights.

The comic highlight occurs when "The Boy" (Bradin) visits "The Girl" (Balfour) in her humble apartment, where she is trying to learn how to bake. She is overjoyed to see him and embraces him. They argue when the Boy offers the Girl and her father his charity, and the Boy leaves with the parting shot, "You'll make a mess of it, the way you do everything you lay your hands on" -- then he turns his back to the camera to exit, revealing the Girl's flour-covered handprints all over the back of his suit jacket. This scene is present on the Brentwood disc, but an intertitle is edited into the wrong place, so that the parting shot is followed by the Boy's earlier intertitle, "You can't live on pride!" -- ruining the continuity of the joke, and the scene!

The film's most intriguing dramatic moment occurs when the Girl, reduced to selling boutonnieres in a nightclub, is spotted by the Man, who invites her to dinner. Learning of her predicament, he pledges his eternal friendship and guides her from their table to one in a series of private nooks in the club where men and hired women can enjoy their privacy. He begins kissing his way up her arm, then takes even fresher advantage of her mouth, and she fights her way free as he tries to force himself upon her even more... In context, the scene is nearly as disturbing as the rape scene in FRENZY, but as the action settles on a close shot of the Girl, the camera dollies back to reveal her still seated at the restaurant table across from the Man, imagining all this -- just as the Boy happens along to save her from this presumed fate.

This sort of thing is fairly commonplace in today's movies and television (I've seen it often used in SIX FEET UNDER, for example), and I can remember seeing it used in some of Luís Buñuel's work of the 1970s and finding it quite radical then. There may be earlier examples of this sort of narrative trickery in silent movies, but I can't think of an earlier instance than this, nor can I name another as brilliantly deceptive. After seeing this scene in the Studio Canal presentation, which had great impact, it was disheartening to compare it to the Brentwood version, which was not only "scored" insensitively, but was missing snippets from the Man's attempted molestation of the Girl and ended up making her seem less vulnerable and invaded. And because the Brentwood version delivers a soundtrack dissociated from the original celluloid, it doesn't offer the usual pops and other telltale audio clues that usually tip us off when footage is missing or rearranged.

As for THE RING (a boxing story, not to be confused with the recent Japanese horror hit or its remake), I've given it only a cursory look; I watched my Brentwood copy (included in Brentwood's 10-movie set ALFRED HITCHCOCK - THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE) only a month or so ago, so it's not something I'm eager to view again so soon. But I did notice that the image on the Studio Canal disc is, again, delightfully vivid and the framing is far superior to what I had seen. I can remember some heads being lopped off in some of the Brentwood shots, from the nose up! I didn't make note of the Brentwood running time, but the Studio Canal version of THE RING runs 85m 35s in PAL (it carries no BBFC certificate) -- that's 89m 14s in NTSC -- so you can compare that to the running time of your copy, should you have one.

I know that many people who love Hitchcock can't get into his early films, finding them "too creaky," and that many of those who do "kind of" like them are perfectly satisfied with the PD versions so prevalent on DVD here in America. But if you take your Hitchcock seriously, I submit that these Studio Canal presentations just might make a difference in how well these films play for you. After watching CHAMPAGNE, I referred to some of my Hitchcock books and found it given fairly short shrift by pretty much everybody. (Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock dismisses the "amusing trifle" in far fewer words that I've given you today.) Having now seen the film under refreshed conditions, I can't help thinking that a smudgy presentation may lead to smudgy thinking. When considered in relation to other films being made at the same time, Hitchcock's early silents are remarkable for the degree to which their images burst off the screen, even evoking the illusion of sound on occasion. CHAMPAGNE may tell a tedious story, but there are other valid reasons to watch a film -- especially a Hitchcock film -- than to be told a story. A Hitchcock scholar armed with these new transfers just might be able to write a more enticing defense of these early years.

Of course, the inclusion of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT in the third set is baffling, especially when so many other, earlier Hitchcock titles would better fit the description of a "First Work." It's also a useless addition to those of us who own the recent, extras-laden Warner Home Video release, but you shouldn't let that prevent you from obtaining the best available copies of RICH AND STRANGE (one of Hitchcock's very best early works) and NUMBER SEVENTEEN (as close as Hitchcock ever got to filming a Monogram "old dark house" comedy).

The sets also include optional introductions by Noël Simsolo and various other treats. The 1927 - 28 set adds only a photo gallery, but the other two sets both contain a half-dozen glossy, postcard-sized still reproductions. Some of these I've seen in books before, but never so generously cropped. 1929 - 31 contains a stills gallery, an alternative ending for MURDER, something to do with BLACKMAIL star Anny Ondra, and a 52m documentary called HITCHCOCK - LES FILMS DE JEUNESSE (featuring Claude Chabrol and critic Bernard Eisenschitz) that is undoubtedly in French sans soutitre. The final volume contains a stills gallery and a 26m documentary featurette, JEUX AVEC L'INVISIBILE, featuring commentator Noël Simsolo.

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