Alfred Hitchcock’s Silent Films


The Music Box Theater in Chicago is showing the “Hitchcock 9”, 9 of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent films which started his career as a film director.    I watched many Hitchcock films from his Hollywood period growing up, and got to see some of his films from the earlier period when he was directing films in England such as “39 Steps”.   However, I have never seen any of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent films and I am taking this opportunity to go and see them tonight.

One of the reasons why I am intrigued about going is that I remember reading that even Hitchcock’s later work in Hollywood contained many elements that he had learned back in his silent film days.    Recently, when watching (for the umpteenth time) Rear Windows on the Turner Classic Movies channel, I saw an example of this in the very opening sequence of the movie.   This 1954 suspense thriller starred James Stewart.   The description of the beginning of the movie reads like this (from the summary of the plot in the Rear Windows Wikipedia article)

After breaking his leg photographing a racetrack accident, professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is confined in his Greenwich Village apartment, using a wheelchair while he recuperates.

Normal movies would have that background explicated in dialogue, but Alfred Hitchcock did it with a series of images.   He shows James Stewart’s face, and then the camera slowly pulls back to reveal his leg in a cast.    Then the camera pans to the left and you see a professional photographic camera that has obviously seen better days, right next to a series of photographs showing the racetrack accident.    The entire background of James Stewart’s character” Jeff” Jefferies and how he became confined to a wheelchair has been shown to the audience in a series of images, but not overtly explained, and it is up to the audience to piece things together and form a narrative in their own minds.

It is the equivalent in cinema of the dramatic literary style, utilized by James Joyce, for example–as opposed to the epic style utilized by Thomas Mann.    In the dramatic style of writing, the writer presents the objects in immediate relation to other objects, as opposed to the epic style, where they are placed in mediate relation to other objects.   What does this mean?   In the epic style, the author presents the objects together with a layer of his or her own commentary, which mediates and interprets them for the reader.    In the dramatic style, on the other hand, the writer presents the objects without overtly making the connections for the reader.

There is a big difference between reading a work of literature in both those styles.   In the dramatic style, without the interpretive layer added by the author, you yourself are expected to make the connections between the objects and events presented by the author, and it therefore involves more “work” on your part to make sense of it.    But because it does force the reader to take a more active part in figuring out what’s going on, it can also be a more intense experience for the reader.

And that, it seems to me, is one of the reasons why I enjoy the Hitchcock films so much, because you have to pay attention and use both your senses and your mind to really enjoy the film.    It is, in other words, a more difficult pleasure than simply watching a movie that explains it’s meaning for you explicitly.    And when I say “senses”, I don’t mean just the visual sense, either.    Sound, or sometimes the unnerving lack of sound at tense moments, is very important in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, as it was in the films of Orson Welles, who came to cinema from the world of radio.    It will be interesting tonight to see how Hitchcock tells the story without any sound at all.

In actuality, though, there will be musical accompaniment in the theater, just as there was during the silent film era, and it should be interesting to experience that as well.   I still remember in college when I was watching the silent film Metropolis  when the robot named Maria is unveiled and the musical accompanist with a keen sense of humor started playing the song “Maria” from West Side Story.    Well, no matter what the accompanist plays tonight with the movie, I am sure to be, as the title of one of Hitchcock’s films suggests, spellbound.

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