Uncovering An Early Hitchcock

The unveiling last week of a nearly nearly ninety-year-old British film on which Alfred Hitchcock served as assistant director, art director, and co-scenarist was another exciting event in the recent parade of major archival discoveries. On Thursday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held the premiere screening of The White Shadow (1924)—or at least, the first half of the feature, which is all that survives. This is just the latest archeological “find” to emerge from a partnership of the New Zealand Film Archive, the American archival community, and the National Film Preservation Foundation that, most notably, unearthed—

—John Ford’s long-unseen 1927 feature Upstream last year.

The White Shadow, adapted by Hitchcock from a screenplay by Michael Morton, is a plot-heavy, often preposterous drama about twin sisters who lead different kinds of lives, because one has a soul (“a white shadow,” indicating purity) and the other is a hedonist. The favorite daughter turns her back on her stern father, who loses his mind as a result but somehow finds his way to Paris, where she has adopted a new identity at a Bohemian nightclub called The Cat Who Laughs. (Later, in what is described as “a vagrant flash of understanding,” he regains his senses—only to be struck by his daughter’s car back home in England. That incident, mercifully, occurs in the missing second half of the picture.) Meanwhile, a proper gentleman (Clive Brook) falls in love with the “bad” sister, so the “good” sister takes her place in his arms rather than see her sibling disgraced.

The film stars Betty Compson, a popular American actress who was lured to England by a lucrative salary of 1,000 pounds a week by producer Michael Balcon to star in Woman to Woman in 1923. It was a smash hit, unlike this follow-up, made by the same creative team.

A “new” Hitchcock film is tantalizing, of course. But, if you’ll forgive an expression I simply can’t avoid, it comes with a hitch: determining how much the future director influenced what we see. Graham Cutts is the credited director, but most histories agree that his young, ambitious assistant and jack-of-all-trades had a lot to do with what wound up onscreen. Hitchcock later said that he did the lion’s share of work as the official director was perpetually distracted. In Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, Patricia Hitchcock and Laurent Bouzereau write of her experience as the editor of Woman to Woman, “…She was apparently not particularly fond of director Graham Cutts. She did not think he was pleasant or professional; he knew very little and Alma felt she and Hitch were doing all the work.” (If one is looking for an objective view, it’s easy to trace Hitchcock’s rise and Cutts’ fall over the next decade by examining their filmographies.) In the same vein, cinematographer Claude McDonnell did nothing particularly distinguished in his brief career, which ended in 1930; Hitchcock chose to work with him only one more time, on Easy Virtue in 1928.

But just as it’s impossible to assess who did what, even on a contemporary film—where actors sometimes improvise lines, uncredited writers contribute to the screenplay, and a gifted production designer and cinematographer may compensate for a director’s shortcomings—it’s dangerous to be too certain about how a film from 1924 was crafted.

David Sterritt, current chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, has done his homework, and comes to the conclusion in his Academy program notes that “even static images from The White Shadow convey a sense of Alfred Hitchcock’s early gift for creating drama by purely visual means. Betty Compson’s impish smile and half-open eyes framed by a jauntily angled hat and a wreath of artfully positioned smoke; the motley crew of men she effortlessly controls at the poker table; Clive Brook’s steely gaze set off by a slash of light across an otherwise dark background; the graceful shading of an ivy-draped window framing a wistful face. These and many other images confirm Hitchcock’s precocious talent for silent storytelling.”

There is no question that Sterritt’s overall assessment is correct, but I would be hesitant to credit anyone for a star’s impish smile or the jaunty angle of her hat unless I’d been on the set myself to see how the scene came to life.

As for content, it’s tempting to extrapolate that The White Shadow’s story of identity and duality is an early exploration of themes Hitchcock later pursued in Vertigo. Or the comparison might be ridiculous…who can say?

What matters is that another piece of film history has surfaced. I’m sure there are more discoveries yet to come.

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July 2024