Hitchcock’s The White Shadow (and watching classic silent movies)

In August of 2011, three reels of a movie thought lost were found in a garden shed in New Zealand. That movie was a silent film called The White Shadow, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. From that point on, the film was restored by the National Film Preservation Society and released for public consumption (you can watch it here on YouTube).

It is a strange Hitchcock film to watch. For starters, it is a silent film which comes with it’s own challenges, that to his credit, the iconic director overcomes quite well (more on that later). It is also damaged, but the Preservation Society have done very well in this respect too, making it very watchable and filling any gaps with informative text. Finally, and the part that is difficult to overcome, is that the movie is incomplete. Three reels have been found but the film is six reels and it is these three final reels that mean the full film and the resolution to quite a compelling story, is yet to be known.

The White Shadow starts slowly

It is a compelling story too. It starts slow and begins to build a small but quite complex story. It is a tale about mistaken identity, two polar opposite twins and a lot of old-fashioned comedy of error, with confused identity and mischief driving the plot. Although it is slow to start, the story does start to grab you and eventually you’ll care about what happens to the characters, particularly the fates of the twins, Nancy and Georgia, and their Father.

This is where the nature of the incomplete film infuriates. Like a classic Hitchcock move, the film ends at a cliffhanger and you may well find yourself shouting at the screen as the final known reel ends. It is based on a book, Children of Chance by Michael Morton, but whether Hitchcock intended to follow the book’s tale is yet to be known.

The movie works well without dialogue

This isn’t the only strange element of the movie. Having never watched a “classic” silent movie before, the experience is a strange one. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Artist but The White Shadow is very different to this film. It is slightly disconcerting that there is so little in the way of “dialogue.” Of course it is silent film so the words are technically “on the screen” but not subtitled and the the actors speak to much more than the audience is allowed to “hear.”

It makes you realise how reliant modern cinema has become on dialogue heavy scenes and key moments of long exposition. Even Hitchcock himself, who used long pieces of dialogue in classic films like Dial M for Murder. It could be a challenge to take a modern movie, especially one with so much great writing, and seeing whether it would still be accessible and successful as a silent movie.

Betty Compson sells her duel role well

The lack of dialogue also means that the movie relies on the actors emoting more physically. This can be disconcerting at the beginning but eventually works very well. It sells the story effectively and subtle differences, especially in the “good” and “evil” twin, is delivered well by actress Betty Compson.

The “silence” and lack of dialogue in the film also means the soundtrack is very important. Hitchcock has also mastered this perfectly and you soon forget that the movie lacks any spoken word as the music chosen sets-up and sells the scenes. It is an early example of the iconic director Hitchcock would become.

The cliffhanger nature of the incomplete movie is infuriating

I can’t review the movie as it is incomplete. I doubt it would have been rated as a 5! but it definitely works on a lot of levels and as the first silent movie I’ve seen, is definitely a good example. It is also a very clear indication of the early promise of a younger and less experienced Hitchcock, especially in the twisted, mysterious nature of the stories he is trying to tell.

Overall, The White Shadow is a good find in movie history. A long-lost Hitchcock silent film that demonstrates his early ability and foreshadows the skills he would utilise so well. It is also a good example of the silent movie genre and how effective story-telling can be if there is no real dialogue to hear. Unfortunately, is also has that last, classic Hitchcock twist, ending on a cliffhanger which could well-never be resolved.

It is Hitchcock to the very end…

 

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