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Early silent films set off Alfred Hitchcock’s visuals

“The Ring” best-looking series finds atmosphere boxing.

“The Ring,” the best-looking of the series, finds atmosphere in boxing.

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When: Through Tuesday

Where: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport

Tickets: $10 ($12 for Mont Alto Orchestra shows)


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Updated: September 10, 2013 6:09AM

‘The Hitchcock 9” is a collection of silent films from the ’20s — no relation to the noisy Chicago 8 defendants on trial in 1969. Nine early Alfred Hitchcock works restored by the British Film Institute will screen Friday through Tuesday at the Music Box Theatre.

Although projected digitally, these black-and-white dramas are tinted in their historically correct style. Musicians will accompany eight of the 11 screenings.

“Hitchcock changed the way we think about film music,” argues Jack Sullivan in his 2006 book “Hitchcock’s Music.” For his better-known films, the auteur collaborated intimately with such composers as Bernard Herrmann. But in the silent era, when his career began, he could exert no artistic control over his film music. Theater accompanists chose passages from compilations of pre-composed scores.

The Mont Alto Orchestra, composed of five musicians from Colorado, will perform its own “compiled scores” for Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” (8:30 p.m. Friday), “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (8:30 p.m. Saturday) and “The Ring” (6:30 p.m. Sunday). Dennis Scott, the Music Box’s house organist, will accompany five other titles in “The Hitchcock 9.”

“The Lodger” draws on Jack the Ripper lore from 1888, a 1911 magazine story, a 1913 novel and a 1915 play. The title character is a suspect in a string of Tuesday night murders of blondes. The orchestra assigns a motif for his key scenes: “a simple modal melody played over a restless ostinato of open fifths.”

This 1926 thriller will also screen with a new score by Nitin Sawhney, who told the BBC: “I’ve treated it more like an opera.” He composed aria-like songs for the lodger’s blond love interest. Lyrics include: “Blue eyes as cold as ice cut through me like a knife.”

In 1927, Hitchcock compared cinema “to music and the ballet.” Rodney Sauer, conductor of the Mont Alto Orchestra, is on the same page. “I think ballet is like silent film — both rely on visuals, not dialogue,” he said in a phone interview.

“In the beginning I was trained American,” the English-born Hitchcock once noted. “My models were forever after the German filmmakers of 1924 and 1925. They were trying very hard to express ideas in purely visual terms.”

He called his camera touches “crazy tricks” and “fancy stuff”— picked up in Berlin and Munich — “ocularly interesting.” Entertainment, not experimentation, was his intent.

“The Hitchcock 9” sports point-of-view shots via a monocle, opera glasses and a champagne glass. We get in-the-face perspectives of kissers and boxers. Delirious montages of seasickness, drunkenness and madness employ double exposures and multiple hues. Overhead angles on staircases predate their use in “Psycho” and “Vertigo.” Knives play roles in many plots.

The best-looking film in the series is “The Ring,” with atmospheric carnival and boxing scenes. One of several titles with love triangles, it is the only one scripted by the auteur.

Alfred J. Hitchcock signs his name in the opening credits of “The Pleasure Garden,” his first feature. One of his signature appearances is found in “Blackmail” from 1929, the same year the Music Box Theatre opened. Lasting 17 seconds, this bit with a pesky brat in a subway is longer than any other Hitch cameo.

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer.

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