Without a flicker of a doubt, Alfred Hitchcock is unquestionably the greatest British filmmaker.
From next month to October, the British Film Institute will stage a major Festival of events in London celebrating the work of Hitchcock, who pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. The Genius of Hitchcock includes screenings of new BFI restorations of all nine of Hitchcock’s surviving silent films; a full retrospective of Hitchcock’s 58 films, including classics like Vertigo, Pyscho and The Birds plus a range of spectacular, one-off musical events as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
Born in East London, Hitchcock lived in the capital for the first half of his life and worked in its film studios for almost 20 years. London was the star of many of his films, and Hitchcock’s name will always be tightly bound up with the capital.
However, we can also see the dramatic influence of another city – that of Birmingham – on the career of Alfred Hitchcock – an influence that is often overlooked or unknown. Many of Hitchcock’s UK films to be screened in the upcoming celebration were produced by Birmingham’s film knight, Sir Michael Balcon, who discovered the young Cockney film maker; provided him with an apprenticeship; nurtured his creative talents and gave him his first directing assignments.
It was Balcon (1896-1977), the Birmingham born producer, who first tried out the fledgling London film maker, giving Hitchcock his start as a director, and ultimately getting off the ground a large number of his UK films.
It was also Balcon who first suggested that the young Hitchcock try directing, and by doing so, he put the UK master of suspense’s career into motion.
In 1921 in London, Balcon formed Gainsborough Pictures, which in 1923 released Woman to Woman, directed by Graham Cutts, with a script written by a young title designer, writer, set dresser and assistant director, who was barely out of his teens…. Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock had been an apprentice at Gainsborough Pictures, during which time he learned all aspects of the film making craft, whilst at the same time his emerging talent was being nurtured by producer Balcon, who rewarded him with screen writing and directing assignments at Germany’s fabled Ufa Studios.
By the time Hitchcock made his first film as credited director, The Pleasure Garden (1926), he had variously acted as assistant director, title designer, art director and writer on nearly 20 features, the majority of which had come via Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures.
The earliest of Hitchcock’s directorial efforts were not particularly promising, starting with the unfinished Number 13 and The Pleasure Garden.
But Balcon kept faith in him and this confidence in the young film maker’s talent was rewarded with Hitchcock’s distinctive direction of The Lodger in 1926.
This proved to be an absolute sensation of a film, establishing a suspense driven style of cinema, which in time would be known the world over by one word only, ‘Hitchcockian’.
Balcon continued on Alfred Hitchcock’s films throughout his British period, usually uncredited, producing The Mountain Eagle, Downhill, Easy Virtue, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent and Sabotage.
Born in 1896, Balcon was the son of immigrants, and was raised in poverty in Birmingham.
He won a scholarship to the George Dixon Grammar School, but had to leave in 1913 due to his family’s financial needs. His poor eyesight kept him out of World War I, and in 1915 he went to work for the Dunlop Rubber Company. His friend, Victor Saville, suggested that they go into partnership in the film industry with a small film distribution company formed in 1919.
This company also involved another Birmingham film pioneer, Oscar Deutsch, who in the 1930s radicalised cinema going with his ODEON cinema circuit. Victor Saville, meanwhile, became a highly regarded movie director in Hollywood.
These three film pioneers, Balcon, Deutsch, Saville, whose careers intertwined in their home city of Birmingham, revolutionised UK film in their respective entrepreneurial ways.
Balcon became a film producer of international movie mogul standing, knighted for his services to the UK film industry.
Initially with Victory Motion Pictures and later with Gainsborough Pictures, Gaumont-British, MGM-British, and Ealing Studios, he was one of a tiny number of Hollywood-style film producers active in the UK in the middle of the 20th century.
The Ealing Studios output of the 1940s and 50s is undeniably at the centre of any account of the British film industry’s most prestigious period – and is above all the achievement of Michael Balcon.
This was the most fruitful period of his long career, marked by his capacity to assemble a creative team of writers, directors, actors and others, perhaps unparalleled in British film history.
His daughter Jill Balcon became an actress, his son-in-law Cecil Day- Lewis was an Irish-born Poet Laureate, and his grandson is the twice Oscar-winning actor, Daniel Day-Lewis.
The BFI’s Hitchcock celebrations begin in July and more information can be obtained at www.bfi.org.uk Professor Roger Shannon is based in the Department of Media at Edge Hill University, near Liverpool.
First ‘ice cold blonde’
There are two other Birmingham connections to the Hitchcock celebration.
The classic Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps, stars the West Bromwich-born Madeleine Carroll. She will always be remembered as Hitchcock’s first ‘ice cold blonde’ muse in the 1930s movies she made for the legendary British director.
She set the blonde Hitchcockian style epitomised later on by Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder, Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Kim Novak in Vertigo.
In The 39 Steps, Carroll and Robert Donat are handcuffed together and have to spend the night bound together on the Scottish moors.
As Carroll removes her wet stockings while handcuffed, Hitchcock exploits the sexual potential of their enforced bondage in his inimitable fashion.
Apocryphally, when calling for Carroll to take her cue on set, Alfred Hitchcock would shout out “Bring on the Birmingham tart!”
A graduate of the University of Birmingham, a school teacher and model, Carroll made 20 films in Britain before establishing a successful Hollywood career.
At the height of her career in the 1940s she gave up her glittering and lucrative lifestyle in Hollywood to aid the war effort in field hospitals near the frontline in Italy and France.
Both the French and American governments have publicly honoured her for her wartime selflessness. She died in 1987. There is a memorial to her outside The Public in Sandwell.
A further Birmingham association with the Hitchcock celebration is a musical one. The Birmingham jazz and hip-hop musician, Soweto Kinch, has composed a new score for one of the restored silent Hitchcock films from the 1920s.
The Ring, from 1927, is the boxing drama that inspired the 2012 Oscar-winning film The Artist and it is now getting a new score from Mercury Prize-nominated saxophonis Kinch.
Hitchcock’s black-and-white movie will shuffle to Kinch’s trade mark live-loops and cutting edge dance material at the world premiere of this new score on July 13.
And for the dance scenes featuring ‘flappers’ – liberated young women of the 1920’s – Soweto Kinch promises some dazzling, contemporary motifs.