​Ian Haydn Smith: “I even considered getting Hitchcock’s name tattooed in Cyrillic”

The “Hitchcock 9” festival wrapped up on August 9. Strelka.com decided to interview the film journalist, radio host, writer and the cinema programmes curator Ian Haydn Smith on what the screening perception in Moscow was, why Hitchcock’s name is entwined with the notion of a thriller, and why the great director would get depressed on seeing “Transformers”.

Daria Golovina: Why is the restoration of those nine Hitchcock’s silent films topical, to your mind?

Ian Haydn Smith: In terms of Hitchcock’s career, I think, the festival made less emphasis on his widely recognised American work, yet more emphasis on his British work, which now transpires as something equally important, at least. Chiefly, the focus was on his silent films. Initially, much of his films are dominated by silence. You hear sounds of a street, you hear cars going by; what you don’t hear — the characters’voices, the films are almost dialogue-free. Although, everyone talks about the shower scene in “Psycho”, but hardly a person would recall the fact that in 10-15 minutes after the murder there is still no dialogue. It feels as if you were watching a silent movie. Hitchcock himself said numerous times that the silent period till late 1920-s was a great period of film-making. I presume that the fact that these films were restored bears out Hitchcock’s greatness even before the American period. Now we stand a good chance to trace how his style developed since the early works.

D.G.: What new can be derived from the restored films?

I.H.S.: At the outset, a wide audience is to see these silent movies. Black and white, silent, really slow —silent movies are far slower compared to films we are used to —these ones are incredibly beautiful! “The Manxman”and its love triangle deserve a special notice, the action is extremely sedative. In my own conceit, a modern audience should have a better perception of the journey the cinematography has taken over the course of almost 120 years, and of how present movies have become what we see them today.

D.G.: Is a silent film alive today, or will it, in your opinion, fall into oblivion shortly?

I.H.S.: A few years ago the winner of Best picture of Oscar was a black and white Spanish silent film called “Blancanieves”which is a retelling of “Snow White”story from the perspective of young female bullfighter[1]. I would agree with one Australian critic claiming that a modern audience has a shock of the new. And I think we are spoilt by the new. “Ring”and “Champagne” are not ranked amongst Hitchcock’s best works. Yet when screened to John Sweeney’s piano accompaniment, the audience’s reaction was incredible. Himself, the pianist marked having never experienced such a public reaction before. Besides, there are so many filmmakers that we can and should come back to with our modern vision: Fritz Lang, David Wark Griffith, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.

D.G.: Why are we talking only about Hitchcock’s thrillers, however as the festival revealed, there are also both dramas and comedies shot by Hitchcock?

I.H.S.: The interesting thing about these nine films is that only two of them, “Blackmail”and “Lodger”can be considered straightforward thrillers, the rest are melodramas and comedies. I would say that Hitchcock created this brand for himself. He was not always popular, before that, he was the man who nobody heard of. He needed a bright image to boost his renown. By the mid-1930s Hitchcock came to realise that it was something he was really good at, and the genre itself empowered him to treat new, previously undisclosed issues. In the 1940s he shot “Mr and Mrs Smith”, an attempted comedy, which simply passed unnoticed. To my mind, if he wanted, he could apply to any genre.“To catch a thief”is a combination of both a comedy and a thriller—a very light movie, full of witty, sparky dialogues, the whole picture being the equivalent to a sip of champagne: bubbly, sparkling and vivid. The director showed that he can be a strong player of this league as well. But a thriller was a part of his brand and the genre allowed him to experiment.

D.G.: Imagine Hitchcock alive today, how would he find modern blockbusters?

I.H.S.: I think he would be depressed if he went to see the “Transformers”film. I have said a number of times that I dislike Michel Bay’s films. However, apart from it, he would find some interesting things going on in the modern cinematography. In the 1960s he became very fascinated by two Italian filmmakers —Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. I think today, if he saw the works of such directors as Sergei Loznitsa or Andrey Zvyagintsev, he would be pleased. The thing is that Hitchcock is the “founding father”of a blockbuster in the finest sense of the word, for instance, “North by Northwest”. Modern blockbusters these days make you feel hit over the head; you are not actually enjoying them, but you go and see just because everybody around does.

D.G.: As I know, you traveled with the “Hitchcock 9”not only to Moscow, but also to other European and US cities. How did you find the reaction of the audience in Moscow?

I.H.S.: I’ve been to five countries where Hitchcock silent films were screened and I have never experienced anything like this before. There would be a large audience for one of the screenings, but what the British Council and Strelka have done goes far beyond the screening framework. Most of those coming to the event have also participated in the discussion. And it felt great to see many people coming again and again every night throughout the whole festival. Certainly, the music played a huge role. Sueto Kinch, John Sweeney, Shlomo —the accompaniment was not a simple soundtrack, but also amplified the subplots insight as well as the ambience. At last, I came up with the idea to get Hitchcock’s name tattooed in Cyrillic, in Russian it looks so much better than in English!


[1] Inaccuracy: “Blancanieves” was Spain's 85th Academy Awards official submission to Best Foreign Language category, but it did not make the shortlist. Source: http://variety.com/2012/film/news/spain-sets-blancanieves-for-oscar-race-1118059927/