While legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock is almost universally known as the master of suspense in classic cinema, his early work in England during the silent film era has not be as visible on the radar of the general public.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is helping to change that this coming weekend with “The Hitchcock 9,” a collection of silent films that Hitchcock made before he became a household name in Hollywood.
“This is a look at a major filmmaker’s early films, films that people don’t even know exist really,” says Anita Monga, artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Between 1925 and 1929 Hitchcock made 10 films, nine of which have survived over time and have been recently restored by the British Film Institute, which launched a worldwide campaign looking for elements to make the best possible reconstructions and restorations of the titles.
The collection premiered last year in England and is celebrating its American premiere at the festival in San Francisco, a city that Hitchcock came to love and used in several of his later films, including what many consider his crowning achievement, “Vertigo.”
“When the first word came out about The Pleasure Garden, which is his first feature, we immediately were on the case,” Monga says. “It was something that we wanted and the idea became instead of just doing one or two titles, to do them all as a series.”
The festival is planned in association with BAMcinematek and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. After San Francisco, it will travel to New York and Los Angeles.”
For those who have never been to a proper silent film screening or festival, or just might be reluctant to check out something made almost a century ago, Monga stresses that the best way to see these films in to take in the whole theater-going experience.
“People do need nudging and I think film classes and film schools are partly to blame for people thinking that silents are going to be boring; they’ve probably shown really bad prints, at the wrong number of frames per second,” Monga says.
And although the term for the motion pictures of that early era is “Silent Film,” it can be taken as somewhat of a misnomer—music is a key factor in properly watching these classics, as the movie theaters of the day would often employ live organists and musical ensembles to accompany the screening of their films.
“Video and streaming have made it possible for people to check out a lot of films that they might not have known—people are pretty well-educated about sound films, but it is extremely difficult to educate yourself about silents in the same way because silents require the fact of the added dimension of sound,” Monga says. “Without that element, you can completely render something that is amazing pretty banal by putting on the wrong music or no music at all.
“We really take a lot of care with putting music to these films—all of our presentations are live musical presentations. We’re doing something that is making these films come alive, and it’s exactly what their makers expected.”
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been putting on an annual summer festival for nearly 20 years now, and has produced several stand-alone special events like “The Hitchcock 9.”
Curious movie-goers can expect to be transported back in time at these events—fans often show up in period dress, ranging from bob-haired flapper girls to fedora and pin-striped suits. Some even pull up in classic cars that look like they could have driven right off of the screen during a classic gangster flick.
“I encourage anyone to live it up,” Monga says. “The Castro is a 1922 movie palace, so it was built during the silent era—but you don’t have to have a particular affection for the ‘20s to find great art in these movies.”
If You Go:
The Hitchcock 9
The Castro Theatre