This is a contribution to the (third annual) For the Love of Film Blogathon, co-hosted by the Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy on Films, and, for the first time this year, This Island Rod. Please read the posts, participate as a poster or commenter, and, most important of all, donate!
The cause this year is an especially fine one: the blogathon aims to raise the funds needed to put recently rediscovered reels from the 1924 film The White Shadow, a hitherto-lost component of Alfred Hitchock's early career, online for all to see Free of Charge.
|The aftermath in Secret Agent|
|Len Lye, in movie villain mode|
Lye was very much an artistic polymath, in the midst of one of his most productive periods as a filmmaker at the time he crossed paths with Hitchcock: in the mid-1930s he made several wonderful and wildly colourful films for John Grierson's GPO Film Unit as well as advertising shorts for clients ranging from Shell to Imperial Airways, with the occasional foray into the commercial cinema. Hitchcock somehow came across Lye on the London film scene and asked Lye to try his hand at some special effects for the climactic train-crash sequence of Secret Agent. Roger Horrocks' wonderful biography of Lye doesn't go into great detail on the encounter between the two men, and most of the very many Hitchcock volumes don't mention Lye at all, though perhaps Secret Agent star John Gielgud, of whom more below, had a hand in arranging the encounter; equally, that GPO Film Unit experience surely helped open doors at the time.
In any case, however the two men ended up meeting, Lye delivered as requested, and apparently his efforts made quite an impression. As the train disaster unspooled, Lye created a colour effect in this otherwise black-and-white film that gave all the appearance of the celluloid itself going up in flames, to further underline the point that the sequence marked a radical, emotionally wrenching break for the characters -- the shattering impossibility of going back to the world before the crash. However, it had occurred to precisely no-one that this apparently very realistic visual trick might cause alarm for the unfortunate projectionist, who initially assumed that there was a fire in his booth.
The incident came to the attention of the higher ups at Gaumont British, who were concerned that audiences, well aware of the flammable properties of film at the time, would similarly panic when they saw Lye's trickery -- with potentially grave consequences (not an empty fear: as an example, I came across reports of a stampede at a New York cinema in 1913 caused when a film caught fire, with two women killed in the ensuing panic). Hitchcock was apparently quick to agree with the higher-ups request that the sequence should be cut, not least because he seems to have thought the idea was a bit pretentious to start with, although he makes use of a similar idea in Spellbound a decade later, with a couple of tinted red frames at a key moment. Hitch's producing partner Ivor Montagu wanted to make a stand on artistic grounds -- or just because he wasn't willing to comply with the bean counters -- but once the master had made clear he wasn't too worked up about the cut, the sequence was inevitably if unfortunately discarded. Apart from that one test projection, the Lye-enhanced version of the train crash never seems to have been seen by an audience, not even the press corps, and so the Hitchock-Lye connection sadly remains in the realm of the curious anecdote.
|Lye's signature from Free Radicals|
I can't help but spare a thought for poor old Graham Cutts, too, as film-lovers across the globe shunt him stage-left off his own project in favour of the youthful, yet-to-be-rotund Mr. Hitchcock (it's nice to see Cutts get a little bit of his due from David Cairns in this very blogathon). As much as I bow to the reality that the preservation of The White Shadow is a priority in large measure because of its illustrious connections, I'd argue that it's ultimately worthy of preservation in and of itself, even if it is of more limited interest as "a film by Graham Cutts" -- as an illustration of what was being made, and watched, in 1924.
Cutts has some history with the experience of being written out of his own films: The Sign of Four, his 1932 Sherlock Holmes adventure, is noted chiefly for the credits of a variety of behind-the-scenes American contributors who went on to greater things, though the film is a solid adventure with the occasional dash of genuine flair, and Cutts makes nice use of sound to generate suspense (in other words, it's pretty typical early sound fare, a little creaky to be sure, and the available prints are in parlous condition).
|The Sea View Hotel, Accra, long past its days of glory|
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