Let the eagle soar

obergurgl

A svelte Hitch shooting THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE on location in Obergurgl.

As we trek through the year and through the oeuvre of Alfred, Lord Hitchcock, this ought to be the week where I view and write about his second feature, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, but wouldn’t you know, someone’s only gone and lost it. (An even earlier Hitchcock, seemingly his first work as director, an unfinished short with the appealing but ill-fated title of NUMBER THIRTEEN, also appears to be lost. Since it’s the only collaboration between Hitchcock and the almighty Ernest Thesiger, it’s loss is a tragic one indeed. The idea of Ernest acting for Alfred fills my mind with champagne bubbles of joy [which can be fatal].)

Since there may well be nobody alive who has seen and remembered the missing MOUNTAIN EAGLE, I was faced with two possibilities — I could research the project, tracing production stills, screenplay and continuity notes, read up on the history of the project* and find out what Hitchcock had to say about it to Truffaut — or I could go to sleep and dream the entire film, on the basis that it’s still, you know, out there somewhere, perhaps detectable by the unconscious mind. You can probably guess what I decided to do.

Since Fiona remembers her dreams much more often than I seem to, I invited her to join the project, reminding her at each bedtime to try and dream THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE. After four nights, all I had was a vague image of bland 90s “folk” singer Tanita Tikaram, which seemed unlikely to connect to the missing Hitch.

But Fiona has succeeded where I failed!

Saturday being a non-work day for us both, we were attempting to sleep in, when at 7.30a.m. I was awakened by a piercing scream. Once I had gotten over the initial shock and racing heartbeat associated with such awakenings, I ascertained that Fiona was awake — barely — unharmed — and the victim of one of her intermittent night terrors. Brilliant — obviously the Master of Suspense had been at work.

Here is the plot of THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, as dreamed by Fiona.

“At the beginning, I dreamed that I flew to America on my own.”

“I thought that maybe I had been hypnotized and sent on a mission. Then I came back.”

“We were in a school.”

“There was a man who was trying to get a bag from me. He said it was the bag I had taken to America. “

“He had either hypnotised me or drugged me, using a bottle of perfume. There was a strange device on the top of it.”

“He said, ‘If you scream I’ll kill you.'”

“But I thought, ‘I have a better chance if I scream.'”

Then she woke up, as did I.

I have just read the plot synopsis of THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE ~

Truffaut: “The story is about a store manager who is after an innocent young schoolteacher. She takes refuge in the mountains. under the protection of a recluse, whom she eventually marries. Is that right?”

Hitchcock: “I’m afraid it is!”

Fiona didn’t know any of this, so I think her dream is pretty convincing (although perhaps contaminated by other films from the master’s canon). The dream does not in every respect coincide with the plot contained in the historical record — but records can be wrong!

*For one thing, it starred Nita “tits-out” Naldi, whose very long fingernails Hitch recalled with a suppressed shudder.

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29 Responses to “Let the eagle soar”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Great work. Best work of scholarship I’ve read in ages.

    Hitchcock himself certainly had no regrets about the film’s AWOL status. Although if it did turn up, people will go bananas about “lost Hitchcock film”.

    By the way are you going to deal with THE RING. It’s one of the few films on which Hitchcock had writing credit.

  2. Well done.
    All “reading”, be it of a film or a book is a creative act anyway, in that we create or recreate the work in the light of our own imagination. There is never a definitive reading of anything.

  3. I’ll definitely be looking at The Ring in a week or two. Downhill next.

    Of all the Hitchcock films to be missing, The Mountain Eagle might be the one we could most easily do without, but without seeing it, it’s impossible to be sure. Hitch was dismissive of a few of his own films. I’m very glad we have The Pleasure Garden, to give a sense of AH’s evolution. The Mountain Eagle would be a fascinating missing link. One assumes that the leap up in quality to The Lodger is as vast as it seems, but maybe this missing link would show signs of development. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a better film than Hitch recalled.

    Anyhow, if anyone has any more lost movies they want traced, Fiona is available for sleep duty.

  4. My favourite early Hitchcock films are Young and Beautiful, Blackmail and Sabotage. Sabotage, perhaps because it is based on one of my favourite novels, Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

  5. I always liked Sabotage a lot. Although the light-hearted stuff doesn’t sit so well. But the darker moments are incredible.

    Thanks to that fairly recent box set, it’s easier than ever to catch up on the REALLY early Hitchcock. Last year I bemoaned the fact that I had the stuff but hadn’t looked at it. Now I’m going to!

  6. I meant of course Young and Innocent when I listed my favourite early Hitccock films.
    I once read a convincing argument that Hitchcock was more of a real artist in his early British films, that when he went to Hollywood he became more of a craftsman.

  7. Hitchcock himself defined the early work as that of a gifted amateur, the American films as those of a professional. Which could tie in with that argument. But I don’t think the division is so neat. Some of the British films have occasional rough edges that tend to be smoothed off in the later work, but whether that’s a problem or a bonus is a matter of mood with me.

    Some of the Brit films (Sabotage especially) hark forward to the American period, some of the American films seem to look back.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    ”Sabotage” is a masterpiece. Of the silents, ”Blackmail” is best. I’ve never seen ”Young and Innocent” though, I’d love to. I frankly don’t care for the first ”Man Who Knew Too Much” and am not big on ”The 39 Steps” either(save for the final bit at the music hall). ”The Lady Vanishes” on the other hand is really great.

    I don’t know where the craftsman in Hitchcock ends and the artist begins. The early Hitchcock films feel fresh I guess because of their comparative underexposure for one thing and the exotic view of contemporary England. That’s one thing I find interesting about the British films is that they seem to be a documentary almost of the 20’s and 30s whereas that contemporary impetus largely vanishes from the American ones.

    In REBECCA for instance, the film’s subject matter is British, the director as well, it has Laurence Olivier and is ostensibly set in contemporary England, but the film just doesn’t feel British. SUSPICION on the other hand succeeds in re-creating the British atmosphere at Hollywood.

  9. When I was growing up (the 1950’s) the British Hitchcock was held by the standard-issue critical consensus to be wildly superior to the American films he was making at that time — masterpeices like Rear Window, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. Outside of a select sequence are two the early British films are rather creaky. They’re certainly leagues ahead of most film product of their era but they can’t touch the later Hitch. became more aware of this than ever a few weeks back when I got a DVD of Rear Window which I’ve had the pleasureof enjoying numerous times since 1954. But My God WE ARE NOT WORTHY!!!!!!

    I can’t think of a single commercial Hollywod film quite as sophisticated, especially in relation to its audience. Hitch assumes an alert and intelleigent spectator. In other words he aims for the best of us — the highest common denominator in the “common man.” The result should be esoteric but the film just isn’t. It’s beyond praise.

  10. Yes indeed, a film like Blackmail, for example, is a wonderful record of a vanished London of the 1920s; trams going along the Embankment, a Lyons Corner House, the East End. Hitchcock’s early films transform ordinary daily reality into art, whereas his Hollywood films are more slick and professional.

    Young and Innocent has one of the best, if not the best ending in all Hitchcock. I have a copy on vhs tape.

  11. I never fail to be blown away by Rear Window, one of the most important cinema experiences of my life.

    I think the cycle of critical appraisal with Hitch has come to an interesting point — the kneejerk preference for the British work has long passed, and now it’s being rediscovered, not necessarily as sophisticated masterworks like Vertigo, but as fascinating historical documents, quirky expressions of Hitchcock’s developing skills, clues to his obsessions and fantasies, and the eccentric cinematic style of British film in that period. So, lots to recommend it, but not ultimately the same kind of mature genius of the best of 50s Hitchcock.

  12. yes–I love “Sabotage” too!

    in fact, both it and the other famous “mistake” film (“Stage Fright”) are fantastic–and for precisely the reasons that Hitchcock publicly chastised himself… I’m never sure how seriously to take those comments (about bombing the child and the false flashback)–is he just trying to draw our attention to these things in order to ramp up their power to provoke “auteur shock”? Or does he really believe they are miscalculations? It doesn’t matter to me either way, but it’s fun to think about!

  13. That’s a very interesting idea.

    It would certainly be impossible to make a version of The Secret Agent without blowing up the brother. I suppose he could have presented it as a shock effect rather than milking it for suspense as much as he did. The aftermath of that “mistake” is some of the best stuff in the film, anyhow.

    Stage Fright may be “minor” but it’s hugely enjoyable, and I don’t imagine many people would object to the flashback, which is clearly presented as a particular character’s version of events.

  14. Arthur S. Says:

    Well I for one detest STAGE FRIGHT. Not for the fake flashback. Simply – Alistair Sim, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Walsh and they just stand there. It’s a very badly directed film. By a fair distance his worst film. Still, it’s better than any mainstream Hollywood crap coming out today but that isn’t saying much.

    With regard to SABOTAGE, Hitchcock I think was a little defensive because he wondered if it was immoral not to let audiences wait for he kid to get blown up. Actually the novel is more brutal since it mentions that the kid’s bits had to be gathered by a shovel.

    I think it’s a terrific film and the reason for that is the acting by Oscar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney, perfectly cast as the Verlocs.

    I agree with David E. totally. And people shouldn’t forget the sophistication of REAR WINDOW. An unfortunate fallout of the then radical defense of Hitchcock’s art when he was dismissed as a cheap peddler of tricks is that today’s filmschool kids thinks that because Hitchcock was a talented peddler of tricks makes him great rather than the phenomenal intelligence of this marvellous human being.

    Hitchcock’s films – REAR WINDOW(set in a single apartment, one set, one costume for leading man), PSYCHO(Leading Lady dies halfway into the film), NORTH BY NORTHWEST(that really wild plot) just wouldn’t be greenlit today even if they were commercial projects in his time. Same with Hawks, his HATARI! was shot on location in Africa but was made without-a-script and improvised as the film went along. No studio head would do that now.

  15. Two of my favourites would be North by Northwest and The Birds.

  16. The Birds certainly has radical qualities — it’s an eco-horror crossed with an experimental film. Kaleidoscope-Frenzy must surely be the most tragic missed opportunity, since it would have seen Hitchcock going as far as he could, and he’d already shown himself to be incredibly bold and avant-garde.

    Maybe when we get to Stage Fright I can find something in it you’ll appreciate, Arthur! I already blogged about it slightly. When you say “They just stand there,” do you mean the performances are uncommitted or the blocking is stiff? I always find Michael Wilding rather endearing. I like him in Under Capricorn too, but I don’t think that’s as entertaining a film.

    Sabotage does have two great perfs. The cop is a bit of a pain at first. It also has some incredible set-pieces, which are absolutely integral to the story, unlike the stand-out moments in a lot of Brit Hitch.

    As I live pretty close to the Forth Rail Bridge, I shall have to give The 39 Steps due consideration when it comes around.

  17. One of the things I most like about The Birds is the location. There is a wonderful feeling of physical, open air reality about Bodega Bay. I love the luminous evocation of sound, light and colour, almost the smell of the place. Nature is allowed its full presence alongside the more domestic and fragile human presence.

    By the way, Slavoj Žižek in the excellent documentary “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema” reivists Bodega Bay.

  18. Bodega Bay is pretty close to Santa Rosa, where Shadow of a Doubt takes place, and SR is even mentioned in a radio broadcast in The Birds. Both films exploit a vivid sense of real place — the menace is far more affecting for being situated in a convincing locale.

    BB seems like a nice place to visit.

  19. I agree that THE BIRDS is a good example of the “horror” genre, but for me it transcends any strict genre defintion. I think it is a great film about growing up, about maturing and a coming-of-age. I love the way he combines and depicts the descent into the private Id with the ecological chaos in such a pictorially striking way. I would fully agree with Truffaut’s percipient insight when he wrote, aprops The Birds: “He created a very successful character, a young San Francisco woman, sophisticated and snobbish, who, in enduring all these bloody experiences, discovers simplicity and naturalness.”

    According to Truffaut, Hitchcock considered The Birds his most important film.

  20. Have you read Evan Hunter’s book about working with Hitch? Fascinatingly double-edged!

    When Hitch says “important” it’s not absolutely certain quite what he means. It could be the “ecological” side, or the “religious” side, or as you say, the personal-psychological side. Or even the technical side, since it was such an epic task to put together.

  21. I haven’t read the Evan Hunter, but will do so, hopefully.

    I think the film embraces all these aspects, the “ecological” , the “religious” and the personal-psychological and indeed therapeutic. That is the beauty of the film.

  22. Apropos The Birds and books, I forgot to mention that I enjoyed Camille Paglia’s book in the BFI Film Classics series. I am fond of Paglia’s writing in general.

  23. Yes, I enjoyed that one. I wasn’t really expecting to.

    You should get the Hunter book — he’s not actually a fan of the film, really, but he enjoyed his time with Hitch. It’s bittersweet.

    And you should buy the Tippi Hedren Barbie, of course.

  24. […] In direct response to Fiona’s success in dreaming a lost Hitchcock film back into existence, the British Film Institute, having already abandoned film restoration in favour of digital […]

  25. […] MOUNTAIN EAGLE, Hitchcock’s lost film, for Hitchcock Year — either dream the film, or get someone I know to dream it for me. These are all legitimate […]

  26. […] does one see lost films? In ones’ dreams, certainly, the way Fiona saw Hitchcock’s THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE on my behalf. Or by reconstructions, which allowed me to stretch a point and tick LONDON AFTER […]

  27. What an original idea for a post! I enjoyed reading.

  28. Thanks! It had to be done.

  29. […] the films of Alfred Hitchcock, managed to review Hitch’s lost film, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, using the power of a woman’s dream? So, learning that the soundtrack of CLOSE HARMONY still survives on disc, I obtained a digital […]

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