Monday, September 9, 2013

Hitchcock legacy, a deafening silence

Hitchcock's The Ring

Jack (Carl Brisson) in Alfred Hitchcock's unique melodrama, The Ring (1927).

Alfred Hitchcock's filmmaking career stretches back to the early days of cinema, but his silent movies are rarely seen these days. The British Film Institute recently restored nine of the 10 silents that he made in the 1920s, and ACMI will screen one of them next week.

It's an exhilarating, entertaining feature called The Ring, which is an unusual Hitchcock film for a couple of reasons.

It's the only movie he set in the world of boxing, and it's the only time that he took a sole screenwriting credit. Yet in many other ways, says Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the BFI, it's typical Hitchcock. For her, it's the filmmaker at his best. He might not have made another film about boxing, but he loved the carnival milieu, and used it in classic movies such as Strangers on a Train and Saboteur.

''It's one of the most beautifully edited films, and the little touches in it are brilliant. It's my favourite Hitchcock film for the touches,'' she says, ''and there are some real stunners.''

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The Ring is a melodrama about a fairground boxer known as One Round Jack (Carl Brisson), and his girlfriend (Lillian Hall Davis), the ticketseller. Jack normally dispatches his opponents in no time; but suddenly he is bested by a newcomer, Australian champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). He comes between Jack and his love: now Jack has something to fight for in earnest.

Dixon's favourite touches include Hitchcock's use of the ring as a stylistic device – whether it's the boxing ring, the wedding ring, or a scene with a series of circular glances.

The BFI has commissioned soundtracks for some Hitchcock films: The Ring has a jazz score by musician Soweto Kinch.

Given how much of the legacy of silent cinema has been lost or destroyed, Hitchcock has survived well. Of the 10 he is credited with, only one seems lost for good: The Mountain Eagle, a 1927 drama set in the Kentucky mountains.

The Ring has come up very well; digital restoration has brought a damaged print back to life. ''Digital now gives you a box of tools to make very significant differences to the quality'', Dixon says. She is involved in the research and curatorial part of the process. ''Then there's the technical element, trying to get the maximum quality back from what you've been left with.''

The BFI delivers digital material to cinemas, but also makes a new negative ''which will give it the longest possible life for the future; it's still the best medium for preservation'' and a 35 millimetre for the few festivals and cinematheques that are still using and projecting film.

Hitchcock spent some time working in Germany in the 1920s, and there are critics who believe this had an effect on his aesthetics. To Dixon, it was the German studio system that left its mark on him.

''This is what he learnt when he went to Germany: that it was about good lighting, expensive production, good writing - tight, tight scripts, with everything meaning three things at once.''

He was clear, she says, in the way he represented himself.

''He was very specifically building a career. He says it quite openly: if you put in little touches, directorial touches, then the press will mention your name in connection with the film.''

It was the same with his famous cameos, his brief signature appearances in his own movies. He made his first one during the silent era, in his crime movie The Lodger (1927).

This, says Dixon, was an accident; he was standing in for a missing extra. His first deliberate one was in Blackmail (1929). It became another Hitchcock device, a way to promote himself and his work.

The Ring is at ACMI on September 13 and 14 at 7pm.


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