British curator Robin Baker sees the master of suspense's signature traits in his earliest silent films
The first Hitchcock film I ever saw I was about eight or nine. It was The Birds," Robin Baker recalls with animated enthusiasm.
More than just an aficionado of genre movies, Baker is head curator of the National Archive at the British Film Institute (BFI). But when it comes to the master of suspense, he reverts to being a keen film geek.
"When I saw The Birds it was on a black and white television but I still got a sense of what 'Hitchcockian' means. Even as a child, I knew it was about a sense of impending dread, of suspense, and I remember I liked it. I wanted more," Baker says during a visit to Hong Kong to introduce the first of a series of screenings of six rare Hitchcock silent films restored under his supervision.
Growing up, Baker's interest in cinema expanded as he devoured films of every genre and nationality. But Alfred Hitchcock - England's first superstar director - remains a keystone in his curatorial career.
In addition to film exhibition, distribution and marketing, Baker had been a director or programmer for the London Children's Film Festival, the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and the Southampton Film Festival. However, his true calling came in 2005 when he joined the BFI.
As head curator, Baker has overseen a number of major projects. The restoration of Hitchcock's surviving nine silent films from the 1920s was the BFI's major contribution to the cultural events accompanying the 2012 Olympics. The screenings were such a hit Baker is now flying around the world to show and talk about them.
"With any restoration project, we have to do a huge amount of research to find out who has what. We had original negatives of three films. The others we knew we had to work with prints so we literally contacted every film archive in the world to find originals," he says.
"People assume that film restoration is just using Photoshop to clean them but it's a little more complicated. Many of the surviving prints were edited differently by theatre owners, so we had to put them back together like a jigsaw puzzle."
According to the BFI man, what is evident in these new pristine versions of the nine films (six of which comprise the "Restored Treasures: Captivating Hitchcock Silents" programme now being co-presented by the British Council and the Hong Kong Film Archive) is that Hitchcock was a natural filmmaking prodigy from day one. "What's interesting for me watching these silent films is that Hitchcock emerges like a fully formed director," Baker says.
"There is nothing naive about the films; it's not like a young man doing something for the very first time. He knows exactly what he's trying to do and what he wants to achieve.
"We sometimes forget because there is no soundtrack the silent directors had to be more intelligent and sophisticated in what they did with images. Hitchcock produced images you would normally have to hear. My favourite example is in The Lodger where three men are listening to someone pacing on the floor above them. Hitchcock got the actor to walk on a glass floor and filmed his feet from underneath. That's the kind of device never seen before. Silent films really helped his artistry," Baker says.
But more than technical proficiency, what the restorations reveal is a director already conscious of his thematic preferences and entranced with what would be his notorious fetishes.
"All the things we've come to know and love as 'Hitchcockian' are present in his silent films. Even though only two are what you would call traditional suspense stories, his obsessions are scattered throughout. My example is the beginning of the very first scene of his very first film as a director, The Pleasure Garden", made in 1925.
"The scene is set in a theatre, which is a common setting in many of his later films like Torn Curtain and Stage Fright. Then we see a staircase which brings to mind movies like Vertigo and Notorious. Coming down the staircase is a group of chorus girls with blond wigs - and blondes are long an obsession for Hitchcock. They go on stage and the camera turns to the men in the front row staring at their legs with binoculars and ogling the women. This kind of voyeurism persists in Hitchcock's career, in Rear Window as well as Psycho. All this is just the beginning of his first movie. To me, it's kind of amazing that his obsessions are so present from day one."
Despite being a cinema giant, Hitchcock has taken some knocks to the jowl recently with works besmirching his personal reputation. A BBC drama called The Girl suggested that the auteur traumatised The Birds actress Tippi Hedren on set after she rejected his advances, while Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of him in 2012's Hitchcock hints at his peccadilloes towards Janet Leigh during the shooting of Psycho.
Baker, who admits to having enjoyed these fictional works, believes we should view them with a grain of salt. "I think it's impossible to say who the real Alfred Hitchcock was," he says.
"Right from the beginning he made his own mythology. He constructed himself as a brand even in the 1920s. In an act of great ego, he credits himself in his first film as director with his signature. It tells you so much about the man that he would sign his first movie.
"And look at the way he uses his cameos and how he introduced his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, often with his tongue firmly in his cheek," Baker says.
"I wouldn't go into these bio-dramas looking for truth. It's not genuine history, but if they interest people to look into Hitchcock's works, then they've done a very good job."
"Restored Treasures: Captivating Hitchcock Silents" runs until January 5, 2014, at the Hong Kong Film Archive