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Introducing Hitch-22 | Silent London

This is a guest post for Silent London by Henry K. Miller. Here, Miller introduces Hitch-22, his “alternative chronology of 1922”, the first part of which is published today.

A typical day in Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius, his engrossing chronology of 1922, much in the air in 2022, a year on from his untimely death, will have more than one entry, most often for events in London and Paris. The section on 4 March, however, begins in Berlin, with the first private screening of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, no. 1 on the IMDb’s list of the most popular films of the year, Jackson tells us, before hopping over to London for no. 6 on the same list: Alfred Hitchcock’s Number Thirteen. The latter, not the former, makes the book’s back-cover blurb: 1922 was “the year in which James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land were published, Alfred Hitchcock directed his first feature, the Ottoman Empire collapsed…” Number Thirteen has dropped down to no. 15 in IMDb’s list in the decade since Constellation of Genius was published, perhaps reflecting a generational shift akin to Jeanne Dielman’s victory over Vertigo, but still the question remains: what is it doing there? There, specifically, on 4 March, but also, in a wider sense, in a book about modernism.

Constellation of Genius is not exactly tongue in cheek, but it is close. As Jackson says on the first page, “1922 unquestionably was the annus mirabilis of literary modernism”, and on the fourth he specifies “English literature”, having introduced other candidate years for other artforms on the second. Much of what he narrates, interrupting the main story of Anglo-American literary modernism, should be understood in relation to Jackson’s interest in ’pataphysics, an aesthetic cod-philosophy that embraces arbitrariness, as well as its own ridiculousness, and the result is a mock-pedantic “on this day in history” feature blown up to 500-plus pages. Jackson would more likely have been amused than disgruntled by the kind of challenge that these paragraphs are building up to, since it misses his purpose – which was to entertain. The culture heroes of 1922 were not pedants: Ezra Pound said it was 1922, and it was he who helped Joyce finish Ulysses and edited The Waste Land. Only a real pedant would point out that it was less seismic for modernist music, painting, sculpture, drama, or dance. Or film.

The movies of 1922 do not fit the modernist canon; or it takes incredible ingenuity to make them fit the modernist canon. The movies of 1922 are not modernist in the way that Jacob’s Room is modernist. Living and breathing modernists showed little interest in the movies – not none, but not much. Those movies of 1922 that could be called modernist – Dziga-Vertov’s, pre-eminently – did not come their way. 1922 was not the annus mirabilis of film modernism, and most of Jackson’s film entries have nothing to do with modernism as the modernists of 1922 would have understood modernism – not even Nosferatu, which has had probably the most attention paid to it, as an instance of 1922’s mirabilis-ness, in this centennial year. But this is to see things from the far end of the telescope. Eventually, Anglo-American literary types did come to value movies as an artform, and find ways to call movies modernist, even while the movie industry became a new pole of attraction for the artistically inclined and transformed the economics of art and literature. That complicated process changed the way we think about the arts, not just now, but in historical perspective. Call it postmodernism.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Hitchcock is possibly the single greatest beneficiary of this transvaluation of values: an entertainer who was found to be an artist, reinvented – we all know the story – by the critics of Cahiers du cinéma, in the 1950s. Hence his apparently uncontroversial inclusion in Constellation of Genius. Now we can see, as modernist thinkers of 1922 tended not to, that great filmmakers are not necessarily drawn from the ranks of the “artistically inclined”, in the prevailing sense (though they can be), and that great films do not need to fit the pattern provided by other art-forms – including the pattern of modernism (though they can do).

Still, what happened on 4 March? The centre of the movie business was, of course, in Hollywood, thousands of miles from the European capitals where most of Constellation of Genius takes place, and a long train journey from New York, scene of some of the other action. Hollywood was barely on the same planet, but Hitchcock was in London, and Number Thirteen was shot in the same ambience in which Eliot put together the first issue of the Criterion. Is there more to be said? Not by Jackson – the entry on Number Thirteen is not one of his most thorough. There is no justification for the date other than the link with Nosferatu via the IMDb list, and he gets the details wrong. But then there aren’t many details to begin with, since despite the high regard in which the film is held by IMDb voters, no one alive has seen Number Thirteen, and very few ever did. Despite Hitchcock’s fame, and the extraordinary amount of attention his life and work have received, very little has come to light about its making.

Most of Jackson’s “constellation” left behind diaries and letters – not Hitchcock. Almost all that is known about Number Thirteen comes from a handful of things he wrote or told interviewers, including François Truffaut, whom he told it was a “two-reeler”, not a feature, and Peter Bogdanovich, whom he told a bit more. His first known comment about it was in a brief interview in the British film magazine Film Weekly in 1930, where he named its stars as Clare Greet and Ernest Thesiger and said all he was ever going to say about its plot. He explained how it came to be made in this way: “high-minded relations” paid for it “so that I could make my name”. Hitchcock was about to release Murder, in which Greet had a small role, and the interview was titled “Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Skeleton’”, as in closet. Six years later, in the same magazine, he recalled the “somewhat chastening experience” of making it but declined to say any more – in fact, he said less: “Out of kindness of heart to the players who appeared in it I won’t mention their names.”

Filming Number Thirteen in Rotherhithe

More information came out in 1949, in an “Index” to Hitchcock’s work published by Sight and Sound. The revelation here came from Ernest Thesiger, who told the Index’s author Peter Noble that Clare Greet had helped pay for the film when the relations’ contribution ran out. The Index also provided the name of Number Thirteen’s cinematographer, “Rosenthal”. Later that year the trade paper Cinema Studio published a smudgy photo from the shoot, taken outside an East End pub, the Angel at Rotherhithe, and gave the names of Hitchcock’s assistants, A. W. (Arthur) Barnes and Norman (N. G.) Arnold, as well as Rosenthal’s first name, Joe. It also gave an alternative title: “13 and Mrs Peabody”.

There were four (or debatably five) British film trade papers in 1922, two of them now digitised, and none of them say a word about Number Thirteen. Nor do such newspapers as are searchable; nor, so far as I can tell, do any other newspapers, though I have not gone through every page of every one of them. It is quite possible that the film survives, and it is quite possible that more was said about it at the time, but this introduction would have begun differently if I had found it. Though I have made a few discoveries, the major advance in knowledge about Number Thirteen remains Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr’s Hitchcock Lost and Found, published in 2015.

Hitch-22 is an alternative chronology of 1922, focused on Hitchcock, but intended to show more than Hitchcock alone. Following his path, and the paths of many others then or later to be part of his world – the movie world – we more than once find ourselves crossing those taken by the modernists who populate Jackson’s pages. The movie world was buoyant in 1922. Every year, at this early stage in his career, was significant for Hitchcock, but this year saw a shift in attitudes towards the cinema among the educated elite, portents of the coming cultural climate in which Hitchcock would be celebrated as an artist. Only a small part of the educated elite was consistently “modernist”, and the modernists were far from buoyant, even in this annus mirabilis of modernism – for Eliot, the rise of cinema in his peers’ estimation was a bad omen. At the risk of excessive neatness, Hitch-22 reveals signs of the birth of postmodernism amid the exhaustion of the modernist impulse.

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville filming The Mountain Eagle

It takes in the release of the first films Hitchcock worked on, the collapse of the first American studio he worked for, and the origins of the British company in which he began his career in earnest. It includes encounters with more than one of the Hollywood figures who would turn him from a British into an international director some two decades in the future. It covers the doings of the film critics who would create his British reputation, some of whom he befriended about this time, and the arrival of the critically acclaimed German films that were so central to his development. It tells the story, as best it can, of Number Thirteen, the most obscure film by one of the world’s most famous directors, and of those who worked on it. And it includes some informed speculation about the beginnings of his relationship with his single most important collaborator, Alma Reville.

By Henry K. Miller.

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