Ahead of the Irish launch of Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf and Professor Charles Barr’s recently-published Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, the authors outline their thinking behind the book in a Q&A with Cameron Ludwick of the University Press of Kentucky.
How does your book, Hitchcock Lost and Found, differ from other studies or biographies of the director?
The clue here is in the book’s subtitle – The Forgotten Films. We do not spend time on any of the landmark films like Rear Window or The Birds, or give a full account of Hitchcock’s career. We focus instead on periods and productions that have hitherto been obscure, in the belief (1) that, given his iconic status, any new information on Hitchcock is likely to be of interest, and (2) that it is precisely the obscure elements, and the periods of struggle, that are of crucial importance in helping us to get a fresher and fuller understanding of just how Hitchcock came to achieve his very special status in film history.
Is it difficult to research and write on someone so well-known and much written about? Are there any expectations or tropes you have to overcome?
Anyone who writes now on Hitchcock – as on, say, Jane Austen – has to ask: does the world really need yet another study of these celebrated works? The best justification is to find and pursue a fresh angle, and we have at least done this, whether or not readers welcome it! Some may resent an approach which does not focus on major films and on the unqualified, unassisted, genius of their author – but that kind of approach, and that kind of expectation, now seems dated, and hard to defend.
In your opinion, what makes Alfred Hitchcock and his films so fascinating? Why do we still study and watch his films today?
He is simply the closest we have to a universal representative of cinema – spanning 50 years, silent and sound, Europe and America, and adapting intelligently at every point to changes in the medium, the industry and the wider society. He was a brilliant collaborator, choosing and using some skilled partners, even though he did not often give them due credit. Early on, we quote the American critic Paula Cohen: ‘to study him is to find an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema’ – of cinema, that is, before the advent of VHS and DVD and downloads. He crafted films very precisely for the mass theatrical audience, aiming to give them ‘beneficial shocks’, both physical and moral. The films still deliver those shocks, and part of their power comes from our nostalgia for the pre-modern cinematic era in which, and for which, they were made.
What qualifies as a “forgotten” or “lost” film?
There are three categories. (1) A few ‘lost’ films, now found, including one feature. The first twelve films on which Hitchcock worked, for an American company in London, were thought not to survive, but we located one of them, The Man from Home (1922), in the Netherlands archive. (2) Several films that remain lost, on which we have found a lot of new information: these include Hitchcock’s first work as a director, the comedy Number Thirteen (also 1922), unfinished and never shown. (3) Many films which were known to survive but had been effectively forgotten: either neglected altogether, or treated superficially. On these, we supply a combination of new information and fresh analysis. Examples include the mid-1920s films on which Hitchcock worked for British director Graham Cutts, and the German-language version of Murder! which he made alongside the English version in 1930
In your book you mention that Hitchcock worked very hard on other directors’ sets before he directed his own first film. How do you think this helped shape his career?
Anyone’s time spent working as a youthful apprentice in any field is sure to be influential. Hitchcock spent five years working first for an American company in London, and then for a more successful British one. It was important that he had both those experiences. Not only did he get a great training, from both, in the various crafts of cinema: he first saw from the inside the ruthless ‘cultural imperialism’ of American cinema, already making it hard for British films to get a decent showing in their home market, and then worked from the other side in devising ways of resisting this imperialism. This grounding ensured that he stayed acutely aware of the technical and commercial realities of the film industry, throughout his 50-year directing career – one of the keys to his success.
What surprised you the most in your research?
For Charles, the main surprise was the range and intensity of Hitchcock’s war-effort activities, undertaken in the margin of his feature films, several of which themselves had a propaganda element. He took immense care in re-editing the early-war British short film Men of the Lightship in order to let it speak more effectively to American audiences; later, back in England, he took similar care in the crafting of two short dramas about the French Resistance, mapping out their shooting and editing shot by shot. Those two films have long been viewable, but new data and new analysis enable us to make fuller sense of them in their cinematic and historical context. For Alain, the major surprise and pleasure was meeting the star of one of them, Janique Joelle, an adorable lady: first the thrill of the phone call, ‘Je suis Janique Joelle de Bon Voyage’, and then, at her place in London, talking through her memories of the production and of Hitchcock himself. And there were other war-effort projects, as the book shows. It is amazing that Hitchcock managed to fit in so much!
Hitchcock Lost and Found talks about how World War II affected Hitchcock personally; how do you think it affected his work after the war?
The most obvious way is the continued dramatization of Nazi evil in Notorious (1946) and, less directly, in Rope (1948). Less obvious is the effect on him, and on his wife, of the hysterical criticism that he received from many sources in Britain early in the war, for not breaking his Hollywood contract and returning home. He stayed on, and carried out – as we show – a mass of effective anti-Nazi work. The criticism stopped, but it had been devastating at the time; the Hitchcocks thereafter only made brief return visits, and became American citizens. The events of the war must have influenced that decision.
Do you have a favorite “lost” or “forgotten” Hitchcock film?
There are many options here, but we both have a special attachment to The Man from Home, as the completest and earliest of the discoveries – found in the Netherlands Archive in a beautiful tinted print. At last we have a film from the very first period of Hitchcock’s career, throwing light on the kind of production he was involved in, even if don’t (not yet anyway) have the English-language intertitles that he designed.
If Hitchcock were alive today what do you think he’d say about how his work is perceived? How would he react to his enduring fame?
He would be amused, pleased, but not at all surprised. After all, he would say, who else has ever so fully articulated and practiced the principles of ‘pure cinema’?
How do you think film would be different today if it weren’t for Alfred Hitchcock?
Whether current cinema has been deeply marked by his influence, we are not sure – this may get exaggerated. But if it weren’t for him, we would be missing a whole lot of fine films. The repertory of cinema classics would be less rich.
Was there any moment in your research where you felt that Hitchcock was an entirely different person than you had originally thought?
In a word, no! We shared the general view that he was a secretive person, combining meanness with great generosity. And in the process of opening up some of the hidden or forgotten places in his career, the research kept confirming this.
Do you feel like Hitchcock is remembered and represented differently on opposite sides of the Atlantic? In the U.S. vs. Europe or U.S. vs. Britain?
In the past, there have certainly been big differences. Americans tended to discount the British work, partly because they knew so little of it, and to claim Hitchcock as their own – and the British resented this. Critics in both countries found the high French valuation of Hitchcock to be overdone, even ridiculous. But now the films are all available to see and indeed to own, and it is easy to check the critical claims against the work itself, and the early films against the late ones. The result is much closer to a consensus. And our book is itself a great symbol of this new international perspective! American publisher, French and British authors.
What is the most important thing that you want readers to take away from the book?
Enjoyment of the discovery of new material, and of new angles on forgotten material. A recognition of the importance of context and collaborators, in any consideration of Hitchcock and his body of work. And, most of all – let readers take away a determination to search for material that is still lost, or forgotten! Look in garages and attics and cellars and in archive depositories for the lost titles that we name, and especially for the one still-missing Hitchcock feature film: The Mountain Eagle from 1926.
Professor Barr will be in Dublin on the 27th May 2015 for the Irish launch of his recently-published book, co-authored with Dr. Alain Kerzoncuf, Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films. Click here for full details
Professor Barr will also be taking part in ‘Cultivating Film-makers’, an open panel discussion considering the contemporary face of Third Level Film education in Ireland. Click here for full details