For the past couple of years, the British Film Institute has been involved in a major project to restore all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, and over the past three months these have been premiered with new scores across London. I previously reported on The Pleasure Garden at the Wilton Music Hall, and since then I have caught up with a further three restorations at the BFI Southbank.
First up was Downhill, starring Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, and Ian Hunter, from the play by Novello and Constance Collier. A rather mature Novello gets expelled from school when he takes the blame for a shopgirl’s pregnancy (his friend is the one responsible), and we follow his descent (and ascent, and descent) literally from rugby ace and head boy to chorus boy, gigolo, and destitute beggar before the inevitable happy ending as the film comes to a close. Hitchcock used stairs and escalators to represent the descent of his leading man. Jeans plays the flighty and two-faced actress who only throws herself at Novello when he improbably inherits money from a distant relation. She and her fancy man soon work through this money and our hero is left again to fend for himself. This film has previously been badly served in DVD releases – its inclusion in ‘Hitchcock – The British Years’ presented the film without a soundtrack, while a substandard print appeared on a release in Greece. Now it looks approximately as the director must have intended, tints and all. I didn’t see the version with the ‘beatbox’ score, but rather a more sedate but enjoyable one from John Sweeney.
Next was Easy Virtue, again with Jeans in the lead, but this time suffering from the loss of an original negative which means ‘restoration’ is not quite of a quality which could be broadcast or easily watched. The elusive twenty minutes which seems to be missing when comparing the original running time and the one it has now has not been located, and so this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play is simply good – but not great. The inter-titles have however been redone and look pristine. This film has not looked as appealing as this for a long time, regardless of it still having the feel of squinting through the fog, and Stephen Horne’s piano accompaniment was a suitably classy side dish.
The final film of the three I watched was The Ring, which showcases the ill-fated Lilian Hall-Davis, the Danish actor/singer Carl Brisson, and Ian Hunter (again – he also makes an appearance in Easy Virtue). Perhaps one of Hitch’s greatest silents, and his first from an original screenplay rather than a published or performed source, this story of many rings – a boxing ring, a wedding ring, a bracelet – sparkled with the jazz score of the Soweto Kinch Sextet, which fitted perfectly with the action, which revolves around a rivalry for the top in the boxing ring, and for the girl. This film is lively, and Hall-Davis in particular is a delight to watch.