Of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic obsessions, the moving body is one of the most remarkable. He lingered on bodies in motion with a choreographer’s eye to show us panic, passion and the fragile nature of sanity. Now, in a newly restored version of Hitchcock’s first film, a 1925 silent movie called “The Pleasure Garden,” we can see the roots of that fascination. It all started with dancers.
“The Pleasure Garden,” which will be screened Sunday at the National Gallery of Art, is a tale of greed, betrayal and murder centered on a pair of chorus girls. One remains a backup dancer but the other becomes a star, because she shows more leg. Their friendship frays as Jill, the starlet, throws off her fiance to be a prince’s mistress, while hard-working, naive Patsy marries a schemer with loose morals and a looser grip on reality.
The action sweeps from London to Lake Como and on to Dakar, where Patsy finds herself in a battle for her life that had me holding my breath. I think I was gasping. And I was just watching a press screener on my computer, with no music. (The National Gallery will have live accompaniment.)
Hitchcock, master of suspense — even in the infancy of his career.
On top of that, he delivers the sisterly camaraderie, ephemeral glamour, drudgery and creepiness of London’s nightclub scene — and the strong backbone surviving in it demands, as seen in the film’s plucky heroine — with verve and a surprising depth of insight.
“What every chorus girl knows,” reads one of the inter-titles, and next we see a dancer elbow-deep in soapsuds, washing her tights.
Yet it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British filmmaker had a soft spot for dancers. Think of his nonverbal finesse, his precise and fluid way of blocking scenes and isolating gestures, as in a work of dance-theater. He put his actors in motion with a kinetic charge that was simple, direct and emotionally powerful — Cary Grant running for his life in “North by Northwest,” and earlier in the film, striding down a hall in a way that told us what kind of man he was. And recall the dizzying grace of Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s slow-dance kiss in “Notorious” as the camera swirls around them.
“The Pleasure Garden” was restored by the British Film Institute National Archive in a three-year project to refurbish the nine silent Hitchcock movies that still exist. Produced between 1925 and 1929, they suffered varying degrees of damage over the years. Now cleaned and pieced back to near-original form, the films have been on an international tour. “The Hitchcock 9” has been presented here by the AFI Silver Theatre and the National Gallery. “The Pleasure Garden” is last in the series.
Of the nine, “The Pleasure Garden” has a double significance. It proves, astonishingly, that the seeds of many Hitchcockisms were planted at the start: his love of motion, but also his fondness for voyeurism, staircases, binoculars, ominous beverages and dirty jokes. Here, right off the bat, Hitchcock is Hitchcock, almost fully formed. At 26.
The very fact that we can marvel at the director’s early ease is a result of “The Pleasure Garden’s” second point of interest: This film was in the worst shape, and is now the crowning glory of the restoration project.
It is “the standout example of how restoration can affect the viewing of the film,” Kieron Webb, the BFI’s film conservation manager, said in a recent phone interview. The film had previously been known only in incomplete copies, with what appeared to be two different versions in circulation, Webb said, and both were missing footage. With the restoration, an extra 20 minutes was added. Missing bits of one section were found on a Dutch print; a lost scene was added from an original nitrate print preserved at Southern Methodist University. The tints and tones were corrected to better match the setting and mood. Finally, the film was cleaned of dirt and mold, and scratches and tears were digitally repaired.
If you see “The Pleasure Garden,” though, you won’t be thinking about the hundreds of hours technicians spent sprucing it up. You’ll be making mental notes of the symbols and images that Hitchcock returned to later in his career. The film opens with a snaking line of dancers clattering down a spiral staircase (“Vertigo” alert!) into the bowels of the theater, taking us down to an underworld where it’s not artistry that counts, but how much skin you show.
Hitchcock may have been thinking of Degas, whose top-hatted dandies peering at ballerinas didn’t have art on their minds either. The next scene is like something out of a Degas painting: A long tracking shot takes us across a row of finely dressed gentlemen in the audience leering at the dancers with predatory enthusiasm. One gent is peering through binoculars, and we see, “Rear Window”-style, exactly the extent of the flesh he’s ogling.
At one point, Patsy is having tea, and the camera zooms in on her cup, where a couple of tea leaves are floating. It calls to mind that eerie glass of milk, glowing supernaturally in Cary Grant’s hand as he carried it up to Joan Fontaine in “Suspicion,” and the frame-filling shot of the coffee cup that is poisoning Bergman in “Notorious.”
But what’s so special about the tea? Webb explains it’s a Britishism that would have resonated with audiences at the time. The leaves represent “an omen about a stranger approaching,” he said, and at that moment Patsy meets the handsome villain who will talk her into marrying him.
Thanks to the BFI’s restoration, we’re treated to a sly little shot pertaining to that marriage that had been lost. It was discovered at SMU, and it offers a telling bit of Hitchcock’s humor. Remember, this is a man who liked to punctuate a love scene with a bawdy punch line — the train entering a tunnel after a kiss in “North by Northwest,” fireworks exploding after a cuddle in “To Catch a Thief.” So as the pretty young dancer wakes up from her wedding night, beaming, the director gives us a close-up of a bitten apple.
Not subtle, but then again, kid Hitchcock was scarcely out of his teens.
4:30 p.m. Sunday
East Building Auditorium,
National Gallery of Art