Writing 'The First True Hitchcock'

Date Published: 14.03.2022

A chapter in his PhD thesis turned into a fifteen year project for alumnus Henry K. Miller who celebrates the publication of the resulting book, 'The First True Hitchcock'.

Here, Henry Miller (History, 1998) describes his hunch that the prevailing wisdom about where Hitchcock learned his craft was insufficient, sharing aspects of the book which resulted from his research.

This book took about fifteen years to write. It grew out of a chapter in my PhD thesis, which was about the growth of “film culture” in Britain between the wars, meaning the world of art cinemas, repertory cinemas, film societies, highbrow magazines, etc.

The received wisdom was that Hitchcock had been exposed to his seminal influences – German and Russian films – at the original Film Society, founded in 1925. Not only that, but the fate of The Lodger, “the first true Hitchcock movie”, as Hitchcock himself called it, had rested on the intervention of the Film Society’s chairman, Ivor Montagu, who was brought in to re-edit the film after Hitchcock’s distributor rejected it. 

The great film theorist Peter Wollen had written of “the artistic sophistication that Hitchcock acquired through his social superiors at the London Film Society, which stimulated his abiding interest in experiment, and led him towards the dream sequences in Spellbound and Vertigo”, and so on. My starting point was a hunch that there was more to it than that.

I read Modern History under Cliff Davies, but didn’t, in truth, read enough of it. Instead I read, and wrote, a lot of film criticism, and became a regular borrower at the Taylorian, whose library had a sensational collection of art films on VHS tape, many of them recorded off Channel 4. Possibly I went into film history as a way of atoning.

The Lodger was Hitchcock’s third completed film, made and first shown in 1926, released in 1927. By comparison with his Hollywood films, there is very little archive material to work with, and most of what had been written about it was based on retrospective accounts, Ivor Montagu’s in particular. 

Quite late in my research I read something in the archive of the Museum of Modern Art in New York that sums up the problem: a letter from Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife, to Iris Barry, MoMA’s film librarian, formerly of the Film Society, from June 1939. The Hitchcocks had only recently arrived in the US, and Iris Barry had asked for documents and photos that she might use in a Hitchcock exhibition. Alma wrote simply that “I’m afraid we have destroyed quite a lot of stuff”, and the exhibition never happened. 

The stuff that survives, and which first confirmed my hunch that the Lodger story was not quite as Montagu had recounted it, is mostly in Montagu’s papers at the British Film Institute – and those of his friend Angus MacPhail, credited by Hitchcock as the inventor of the “MacGuffin”, and mentor Adrian Brunel, someone Hitchcock had worked with before they fell out.

These discoveries helped me argue a narrow point about the film’s editing, but not much else. Neither Alfred nor Alma left behind diaries, personal letters, significant autobiographical writings – anything that might illuminate their inner lives. More might turn up, but I had to approach from the outside, trawling through microfilmed newspapers in search of scraps. Eventually this yielded a new picture of what had really been going on behind the scenes of The Lodger – less of an underdog story, but one that I hope shows Hitchcock in historical context. 

The version of the book I pitched in 2008 – and which was commissioned in 2012 – was strictly to do with The Lodger we have. As time went by, however, I wanted to write something more expansive about how Hitchcock became Hitchcock – both the Hitchcock of The Lodger and the Hitchcock of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho… I had begun teaching “classical Hollywood” at Cambridge, and visited Los Angeles a couple of times in the course of my research, and wanted to conclude with the Hitchcocks’ move there.

It became obvious that the way to do it was through Hitchcock’s abandoned remake of The Lodger, in 1940–1, co-written by Alma Reville and Joan Harrison. There is something poignant about this failure, and especially revealing of Hitchcock, one of whose great themes, as in Vertigo, was repetition-compulsion. As the book shows, there is more of Vertigo in The Lodger than is usually supposed, and Vertigo was the film that sparked my interest in Hitchcock – I saw it on the night I got my offer from Wadham, neatly enough. There was a kind of inevitability in the book’s attempt to account for it.”

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