Posted Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, at 11:08 AM
For film fans, this is shaping up to be a very good Hump Day: It’s just been announced that the first 30 minutes of The White Shadow, believed to be the earliest surviving feature credited to Alfred Hitchcock, has been discovered in a New Zealand archive.* It had been sitting there, notes the Los Angeles Times, in a cache of unidentified (and highly unstable) American nitrate prints since the late 1980s, mislabeled as "Twin Sisters."
When Hitchcock worked on The White Shadow—as writer, assistant director, editor, and production designer—he was only 24; his feature directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden, was still two years away. (Apparently the director, Graham Cutts, did not take too kindly to his talented young colleague.) Film historians note that the discovery offers an unprecedented chance to study how Hitchcock began to develop his distinctive Hitchcock-ness. In fact, it was the "visual mastery" of two frames—one of a woman smoking and one of a pair of hands holding an array of playing cards—that first tipped off an archivist that these particular reels might be something special.
Even non-cinema connoisseurs should find the film juicy, however. According to the National Film Preservation Board, which gathered the funding to tackle the film’s restoration, the silent feature is
an atmospheric melodrama starring Betty Compson, in a dual role as twin sisters—one angelic and the other "without a soul." With mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls, the wild plot crams a lot into six reels. Critics faulted the improbable story but praised the acting and "cleverness of the production."
In the three reels that survive, the evil twin, Nancy—a free-spirited modern woman of the 1920s—goes missing and "resurfaces in Paris, where she becomes a habitué of the bohemian nightclubs," as the first slideshow on this page puts it.
Let a thousand dissertations bloom!
[h/t to Pat's Papers]
Correction, August 3: An earlier version of this post said that The White Shadow was Hitchcock's earliest feature; it is believed to be Hitchcock's earliest surviving feature.