So off I took myself on the Sunday of last week, in the summer of the year and with merry little cartoon bluebirds chirping around my head, to the Pálás Cinema Galway, where they were showing Mark Cousins’s new documentary My Name is Alfred Hitchcock.
Now, anyone with the slightest interest in the film stands in awe of Mr. Cousins -- he of the soothing, mellow, and seductive tones. His breadth of knowledge and exhausting attitude to work is always a pleasure to come in contact with. And here he uses the intriguing conceit of having a scarily accurate Hitchcock impersonator – one Alistair McGowan – to present the great director’s own words and ideas, interpreted by Mr. Cousins, in order to give us the impression of listening to Hitch from 40-odd years beyond the grave.
Older film heads will be familiar with much of this material, but for anyone seeking a solid introduction to the Master, it is highly recommended. Because we see things from ‘Hitchcock’s’ side, it concentrates solely on the films, on the work. You should look elsewhere for insights into the more problematic – to put it mildly – aspects of his personality. Perhaps Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius would be a starting point.
The BIG thrill for me was reacquainting myself with Hitchcock’s work during the silent period, something that Cousins delves into with enthusiasm, giving us clips from The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Ring (1927), and The Farmer’s Wife (1928), amongst others.
When you think about it, it’s rather ironic that he began his career in 1919 as a title card designer. After all, he would spend a great deal of time over the succeeding decades in getting away from words. And instrumental in that was his trip to Berlin in 1924, where the 25-year-old was assistant director on the Anglo-German co-production of The Blackguard. But it was what was happening on the set next door that resulted in him watching one of the legends of filmmaking at work -- none other than Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, who was filming his classic Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh). And it’s heartening to see that Murnau appears to have been generous with his time towards this captivated young man.
Indeed, Spoto reports that it was Murnau who pointed out things like perspective; and John Russell Taylor that Hitch ‘was dropped in the middle of the most innovative area of film-making’ and found the production of The Last Laugh ‘especially captivating’.
And well he would. Following the documentary, I watched Murnau’s masterpiece for the first time in years; and, of course, one of the things that it is famous for is cutting the use of title cards to the pure minimum – to one, in fact. And he can still tell a concise story! Let’s see you try that, D. W. Griffith!
The Last Laugh is available on YouTube and if you wish to see the exact moment when Hitchcock was won over, stop the film at 46.00. Leaving aside the depth and perspective, when Uncle Alfred realised that the train was actually a model, he knew he wanted to take this ‘trickster’ industry seriously.
And he took it seriously as an emerging art form right from the beginning, looking for different places to place his camera. So how could he not become besotted with the German films of 1924 and 1925, commenting that these were his permanent influences and his time in Berlin ‘the only external formal influence’ in his career.
‘Some of those silent era images were rather marvelous, don’t you think?’ he asks rhetorically at one point. ‘Very Germanic.’
You’re preaching to the converted here, Mr. Hitchcock; and as he goes on to speak of being in a ‘Weimar state of mind’, I think that it’s fair to say that he would have fitted right in here at the Silent Cinema Galway. He always – always – preferred the image over a talky scene. And of The Last Laugh in particular he said: ‘[It] was almost the perfect film. It told its story even without subtitles, from the beginning to end, entirely by the use of imagery, and that had a profound effect on me.’
I’ll be looking out for his shade on my next visit: sitting there, perhaps, at one of the tables, with his hands folded comfortably over that large paunch and with a glass of his favourite Montrachet by his elbow.