It’s almost like something out of a Hitchcock suspense thriller. Three mysterious reels of film are discovered in storage at the New Zealand Film Archive. Because the film decays in open air, the segments of film closest to the edge, including the credits, are gone. Nowhere on the film is a title listed. But two frames—a head wreathed in smoke, a hand of cards with four kings—stand out to a single film-preservation expert, Leslie Lewis, visiting the archive from the U.S. National Film Preservation Foundation as part of a collaboration agreement between the two archives. The technique in the shots is too good for this not to be important, whatever it is. And there are clues: the distributor’s logo appears in the movie and a Kodak film code reveals the year of production. The evidence points to one movie—the 1924 Graham Cutts silent film The White Shadow, a critical flop that Hitchcock scholars had thought was lost forever.
The White Shadow also happens to be assistant-directed, art-directed, edited and written by none other than Alfred Hitchcock—and it’s his earliest surviving feature. It’s thought to be the earliest surviving film on which Hitchcock worked with Alma Reville, whom he would marry two years later. (Although Hitchcock was only an assistant, Reville believed that she and Hitchcock were doing all the work, according to her biography Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man.)
And now, thanks to online fundraising efforts and donated bandwidth, the National Film Preservation Foundation has been able to make the silent film available to screen online for free, for two months starting today.
Or, rather, Hitchcock fans can watch the first half of the movie. The last three reels (of six) remain lost to time, and audiences must be satisfied with the written description of what happens at the end, after the two British twins—one good, one evil—happen to end up in the same cabaret where, unbeknownst to them, their long-lost father has also come to beg for change. But, says Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, that disappointment is a way to see just how good Hitchcock was already, even at such a young age and so early in his career. “Seeing the film with an audience is quite the experience,” she says, speaking of a gala screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that took place last year. “At the end point when it breaks off, when the mysterious lady goes down the stairs, there’s a collective sigh. It goes to show that the film still works!”
Not that it’s a masterpiece on a North by Northwest scale. “It didn’t get good reviews and I think probably one of the reasons it didn’t survive in many prints was that not many copies were made for distribution,” Melville says. “But even the critics who faulted the [story] said it was very cleverly done.”
That cleverness is on full view with the evil-twin plot, which required the use of double-exposure techniques—rewinding the film and shooting over it—in order for star Betty Compson to play both twins. Modern audiences may also be surprised at the amount of color in the film, as different scenes are cast in various hues. “Silent film wasn’t black and white,” Melville explains. “There were many ways in which color was added to make it more interesting for viewers. What you’re seeing is color tinting that was added.”
Melville says she’s glad that Hitchcock aficionados will get their first chance to watch the film. “It’s a great way to see some indication of his early work at such an important stage in his career,” she says, especially since not much of his work from that time has survived. Though the film wasn’t merely an artistic learning experience for Hitchcock. Its commercial failure also, in some ways, led him to become the director he did. Because The White Shadow failed commercially, one of the companies involved in its production went out of business, leading an employee to found his own company—the company that would eventually co-produce The Pleasure Garden, the first film Hitchcock directed.