Guardian: A Hitch in time: save the Hitchcock 9
Nine of the 10 films Hitchcock directed in the 1920s are getting a full restoration. Henry K Miller enters the dusty world of the archivists and learns about the race to save the silents.
The audience at the Capitol cinema in London during the middle week of April 1926 witnessed an unusually bold declaration of authorship. The opening moments of The Pleasure Garden, touted in the fan magazines as the debut of "the youngest director in the world", contained, under the "directed by" credit, the slanted and underlined signature of the 26-year-old Alfred J Hitchcock. What followed was also – as it would become clear over the decades – signature Hitchcock film-making. The film's first scene gives us a voyeur's-eye-view of a dancer's legs; and then makes us share the voyeur's unease as the look is returned. The Spectator's influential critic Iris Barry scented the "new blood" desperately needed by the ailing British film industry, writing that Hitchcock had "astonished everyone with his freshness and power".
Despite the plaudits, and despite Hitchcock's self-confidence, there was no inkling that his films would be seen in five years' time, let alone 85. Three million Britons went to the pictures every night, and the turnover was fast. Most movies played for half a week before being replaced, with a favoured few lingering in circulation a little longer. Survival was a matter of luck and the market. But next year, if all goes to plan, nine of the 10 films Hitchcock directed during the 1920s will be seen as no one has seen them since their first release, restored thanks to the BFI National Archive's Rescue the Hitchcock 9 project.
Publicly launched a year ago, and yoked to 2012's Cultural Olympiad, the biggest single undertaking in the archive's history is global in scope, but has its nerve-centre on the edge of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, in what used to be – and from the road still resembles – a farm. Home to vast air-locked, low-temperature film vaults, and to the personal papers of the likes of Michael Powell and David Lean, "Berko" is a hive of white-coated, clean-handed, obsessive activity.
Now the largest film archive in Europe, it was among the very first. The National Film Library, as the archive was originally called, was launched in July 1935, a few weeks after the release of The 39 Steps. A lowly department of the young and deeply troubled British Film Institute, it started out, in the words of its first curator Ernest Lindgren, 24 years old when he took on the role, with "no films, no equipment, and no money". Most of the silent heritage had been destroyed since the coming of talkies at the end of the 1920s, and so the library comprised, said Lindgren, "scraps of flotsam and jetsam, the wreckage of a vast output of film, which purely by chance have survived the destructive storm of time". ...