Hitchcock's silent gems back on screen

Restoration brings new life to British director's early work and his films are finding a brand new, younger audience around the world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 4:27am

They were films almost lost to time. Scratched, faded and in desperate need of repair after more than 87 years, director Alfred Hitchcock's silent movies could have disappeared and remained just a memory. But thanks to restoration work done by the British Film Institute, they are seeing a worldwide revival.

Over the next few months, six of the nine restored films, which have been on tour in cities from Rio de Janeiro to Shanghai, will be screening at the Hong Kong Film Archive in Sai Wan Ho as part of its "Restored Treasures" series.

"All of Hitchcock's obsessions were there from the beginning," said Robin Baker, head curator of the institute's National Archive, who flew in to inaugurate the show on the early work of the director whose name has become synonymous with suspense and thrillers.

The six movies to be shown - The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Downhill, The Ring, Champagne, The Manxman and Blackmail - were all filmed between 1926 and 1929, a time of great exploration for the film industry.

"Only 20 per cent of [British] films from the silent period survived," said Baker. "It's so important we show how film was then."

Hitchcock's love of movement, voyeurism, staircases, binoculars, sinister beverages, ominous angles and dirty jokes were all already manifest when he was in his late 20s.

Baker and his team restored and re-established more than nine million frames over four years. Spending more time than the director of Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963) took to film the actual movies, Baker tried to get the films as close as possible to what audiences of the day would have seen.

At the Shanghai Film Festival in June, the nine silent movies drew crowds, and unusual ones in Baker's eyes.

"It was amazing to see the age of the audience in China," he said. "So many young people."

With the restriction on importing foreign films, meaning just 34 films made outside the mainland are approved for screening every year, smaller, independent films from Britain have a hard time competing against Hollywood blockbusters that rake in the cash.

So film festivals are the avenue for Chinese movie-goers to experience British cinema.

"We're trying to give a real taste of British work, films we haven't shown before," Baker said. "Films that transform understanding, that are a cultural exchange."

But the institute and its partner the British Council are not just in the business of bringing British cinema to the world. It's a two-way street, with an 80-plus film retrospective of Chinese movies that featured at the Toronto International Film Festival, due to make its way to Britain in 2014 and later to Hong Kong.

The films, all shot between 1901 and 1949, include footage of old Shanghai's Nanjing road where western women pedal their bikes amid sedan chairs; Sikh police and German soldiers with spiked helmets, and of old Beijing. There are also amateur films shot by British families - one ethnically Chinese. "We're keen to bring it here. Hopefully at the end of 2014," Baker said.

"Restored Treasures: Captivating Hitchcock Silents" will run until January 5, with films showing on eight days. Tickets are available through Urbtix.

After some screenings, film critics Thomas Shin, Matthew Cheng, William Cheung, Lau Yam, Mary Wong and Wong Ainling will run sharing sessions.

The British Film Institute promotes "access to and appreciation of the widest possible range of British and world cinema and to establish, care for and develop collections reflecting the moving image history and heritage of the United Kingdom".