By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Murder!,” British International Pictures Inc., 1931]
Anyone that loves cinema loves Alfred Hitchcock he virtually personifies the art form, and defined its visceral potential for at least four generations of filmgoers. No one not one movielover can dislike Hitchcock; his career has the length, breadth and distinctive voice to make him the Jupiter of the American pantheon. What critically beloved master has had such a firm tap on the pulse of his mass audience, and what crowd-pleaser has generated as much scholarly cross-examination? Hitch’s seamless engagement with both pulp buoyancy and subtextual meta-ness makes him unique and ubiquitous in our modern pop culture: decades after his death, his name is still a common adjective, and his best films “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Rebecca,” “Notorious,” “Rear Window,” “Suspicion,” “Lifeboat,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Wrong Man” still grab your eyeballs and stoke your amygdala into a hapless state of unease.
Hitchcock is certainly no longer merely “the master of suspense,” but is in fact a cottage industry of film theory, tenure security, cultural trope and remake business. Which is good, because many of his films are far from suspenseful, and in any case what is best considered to be Hitchcockian has more to do with visual eloquence and cinematic innovation than suspense. The new, beautifully designed Lionsgate box of five restored early films all of which have been roaming around as untouchables in the public-domain circle of home video hell for decades is what we’re talking about: each film, from the 1928 revenge drama “The Ring” to 1931’s outrageous satire-farce “Rich and Strange,” is virtually a glimpse into the young Brit filmmaker’s skull as he attacks the limitations of silent film narrative, as well as the technical encumbrances of early sound, with a Da Vinci-esque lust for invention. The most ordinary scenes the melodramatic face-off that makes up most of 1929’s “The Manxman,” say, or “The Ring”‘s various pre-noir portraits of social doom are converted by Hitchcock into explosions of stylistic expression, using double exposures, composition-in-depth, unpredictable camera movement and Soviet-style associative montage to make his emotional points. From the very beginning, it wasn’t about the actors, it was about the space between the action and the audience.
“The Skin Game” (1931) is a perfect example a stodgy John Galsworthy play about farmland class war that Hitchcock electrifies with savvy camera placement, empathic confidence (holding on an image or face when another director would’ve moved on) and rousing montage chaos. “Murder!” (1930), England’s first sound film, is famous for the retrospectively extraordinary scene in which Herbert Marshall susses out an integral matter about a misconvicted murder trial while shaving and listening to the radio a simple early talkie moment Hitchcock managed by having an entire unseen orchestra play an aria from “Tristan and Isolde” from behind the bathroom set where Marshall stood. But with moments of frisson in the courtroom and in the circus tent, you can see Hitchcock’s idiosyncratic fascination with sensationalistic set-pieces was already in place and turning gears. All of the films are in newly pristine shape, and are supp’d by a mini-doc featuring interviews of Hitchcock pal Peter Bogdanovich, as well as the filmmaker’s daughter and granddaughter.
Opening a window on another, altogether different cross-section of cinema history is the freaky DVDing of Sergei Gerasimov’s five-and-a-half-hour “Quiet Flows the Don” (1957), famously regarded as the “Gone With the Wind” of Soviet cinema. (Maybe I always thought Sergei Bondarchuk’s six-hour “War and Peace” was the “Gone With the Wind” of Soviet cinema.) In the digital archiving-&-distribution video epoch, no detour from the mainstream autobahn of movie culture remains a secret for long, it seems, and we’ve been inundated lately with the effluvia left behind by the Communist dream machines of both Soviet Russia and East Germany. Like advertising, most Socialist agitprop acquires a yellowed-snapshot quaintness and naïveté with time, envisioning as it does a mythical utopia of red-cheeked laborers and thriving equity. Today, we can take its measurements as kitsch, as totalitarian heebie-jeebies, as pure formal craziness, or as some bobble-headed conglomeration of all three. (And we do: Futurist/Socialist Realist poster art from the Soviet Union fetches big bucks as cultural art nowadays.)
“Quiet Flows the Don” is a little different a rambling, episodic, muscular peasant melodrama (based on a novel by Nobel-winner Mikhail Sholokhov) that follows two extremely unlucky lovers as they face untold tragedy before, during and after the October Revolution. Hardly propaganda (even considering the John Fordian love of Cossacks, a military clan to which Sholokhov belonged), Gerasimov’s epic is all about sex a seemingly endless march through the struggle between traditional agrarian-social values and the messy reality of sex desired, refused, consummated, forcibly taken and child-productive. Shot on and around the titular river so starkly it often looks as if it was photographed in black-&-white when it wasn’t, the movie is a go-for-broke tragic swoon that Douglas Sirk could’ve made given a taste of state repression and a love for the rolling valleys of south-central Rossiya.
The Alfred Hitchcock Box Set (Lionsgate) is now available on DVD; “Quiet Flows the Don” (Kino) will be available on DVD on March 6.