Art News

First Film by Alfred Hitchcock Found the New Zealand Film Archive

artwork: Betty Compson in a  still image from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The White Shadow’,  thought to have been lost, has been found languishing at the New Zealand Film Archives. Courtesy of New Zealand Film Archive/ Agence France-Presse/ Getty Images

WELLINGTON, NZ – After a world-wide search, a large part of The White Shadow (1923), thought to be the earliest surviving feature by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1990), the celebrated master of suspense has been found in New Zealand – just in time for the filmmaker’s 112th birthday. A wild, atmospheric melodrama starring Betty Compson in a dual role as twin sisters, one angelic and the other “without a soul,” the lost film turned up among the cache of unidentified American nitrate prints safeguarded for the last 23 years by the New Zealand Film Archive. So far, only the first three reels of the six-reel feature have been found; no other copy is known to exist.

artwork: Director Alfred Hitchcock July 1975 photo. Listed among the world's greatest filmmakers, no director so dominates a genre as Hitchcock does the thriller.The White Shadow was among the many silent-era movies salvaged by New Zealand projectionist and collector Jack Murtagh. After his death in 1989, the highly flammable nitrate prints were sent to the Film Archive for safekeeping by Tony Osborne, the collector’s grandson. The Hitchcock film is just one of the treasures uncovered, including John Ford’s Upstream, which owe their survival to Murtagh’s passion for early cinema. Reflecting on his grandfather’s passion Tony Osborne says, “From boyhood, my grandfather was an avid collector– be it films, stamps, coins or whatever. He was known, internationally, as having one of the largest collection of cigarette cards and people would travel from all over the world to view his collection. Some would view him as rather eccentric. He would be quietly amused by all the attention now generated by these important film discoveries.”

Like Upstream, the surviving reels of Hitchcock’s The White Shadow will be preserved at Park Road Post Production in Wellington. Black and white duplicate negatives will be struck from the original nitrate material and colour prints made which will replicate the tints used in the original print. “It’s exciting to work on the preservation of yet another historically significant film here at Park Road and we feel privileged to be involved in such an important project”, says Head of Laboratory, Brian Scadden.

“This is one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work,” said David Sterritt, Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock. “At just 24 years old, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the film’s scenario, designed the sets, edited the footage, and served as assistant director to Graham Cutts, whose professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging. Hitchcock’s own directorial debut came only two years later. These first three reels of The White Shadow—more than half the film—offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape.”

In addition to the preservation work on The White Shadow and Upstream carried out in New Zealand, many other titles for preservation have been identified amongst the latest find. They include the early Technicolor film The Love Charm (1928), early narratives from pioneering woman directors Muriel Ostriche and Alice Guy, a 1920 dance demonstration by ballerina-choreographer Albertina Rasch, a tantalizing fragment from the Keystone Kops’ lost slapstick comedy In the Clutches of the Gang (1914), and a number of other shorts and newsreel stories long unavailable in the United States.

artwork: Betty Compson plays cards with the boys in this scene from "The White Shadow." (National Film Preservation Foundation)

The ‘lost’ films will be preserved over the next three years in partnership with the US National Film Preservation Foundation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA Film & Television Archive and made available in the United States.

Copies of the films will also be publicly available in New Zealand. Many will be viewable on the NFPF Web site. Plans for a re-premiere screening will be announced soon. An additional print of The White Shadow will be presented to the British Film Institute in honor of its Hitchcock rescue project.

The New Zealand Film Archive / Ngā Kaitiaki O Ngā Taonga Whitiāhua, which this year celebrates its 30th birthday, preserves and protects New Zealand’s moving image history, housing over 150,000 titles spanning feature films, documentaries, short films, home movies, newsreels, TV programmes and advertisements.

Because the archive only has the funding to restore its country’s vintage films, experts couldn’t spend much time with the American releases (though “White Shadow” was a British film it was released in the U.S. in 1924 by Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises). Selznick’s son, producer David O. Selznick, would bring Hitchcock to America 15 years later to make “Rebecca.”