Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow”: A Chronicle of Genius Foretold

September 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Courtesy The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Last Thursday night’s long-awaited AMPAS screening of the previously lost and newly restored “The White Shadow” (1924) surpassed my expectations, which were very high. Though incomplete–only three of its reels were recovered–the film is impressive, so much so that it is still running in my head, days later.  Any serious filmgoer should jump at the chance to see it.

The earliest surviving film work of Alfred Hitchcock, who is credited as writer, editor and assistant director, “The White Shadow” provides ample evidence of an already sophisticated visual style. (Though Graham Cutts is the credited director, Hitchcock’s contribution is thought to have been far greater than his. Speaking of their five films together, Hitchcock said that he was  “running even the director.”) The fact that Hitchcock was only 24 years old at the time speaks volumes about his talent.

In an era where films were often shot on the fly, “The White Shadow” appears to have been carefully storyboarded. Shots are framed and lit beautifully, and actors are positioned in a manner more painterly than haphazard. My favorites include Betty Compson (excellent as twins, one good and one bad) playing poker, her eleborate hat wreathed in cigarette smoke, and the shot that introduces The Cat Who Laughs, the nightclub where she plays. Instead of opening with a shot of the club, Hitchcock shoots its logo, a cat’s face medallion on the grillwork of an interior balcony. In the background, we glimpse the stockinged legs of  the club’s female patrons–a sight that conveys more information than any conventional establishing shot.

Betty Compson in "The White Shadow"/Courtesy

In making the most of  a beautiful country estate and a Parisian nightclub, Hitchcock provides a fascinating preview of later films like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” and “Vertigo,” whose locations were of the utmost importance. Unlike many silent films, which seem set-bound, “The White Shadow” makes good use of the outdoors. Part of the missing section was shot in Switzerland, and would have been fascinating to see.

The audience at the screening was captivated, not only by the film but by the excellent musical accompaniment, composed by Michael Mortilla and performed by him and Nicole Garcia. So wrapped up were we that its abrupt ending, at a particularly dramatic juncture, was met with a collective groan–and huge regret that the rest of the film would never be seen (though it was described–by Eva Marie Saint, no less). Still, “The White Shadow” is amazing. See it if you have the chance.

Courtesy Mary Mallory

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