In a twist the Master of Suspense himself would have been proud of Alfred Hitchcock's earliest surviving movie has been found languishing in a vault in New Zealand.
By Paul Chapman in Wellington and Nick Allen in Los Angeles
10:29AM BST 03 Aug 2011
All copies of The White Shadow, a silent feature film released by Hollywood in 1924, had been thought lost to posterity, and cinema historians have described the discovery as "priceless".
Three dusty reels containing the first half of the film – about 30 minutes of footage – had been stored deep in the bowels of the New Zealand Film Archive, where the search is continuing for the other three reels.
The acclaimed director was 24 when he worked on what was billed as a "wild, atmospheric melodrama" starring actress Betty Compson as twin sisters, one angelic and the other "without a soul". He was credited as assistant director and also wrote the scenario, designed the sets and edited the footage.
At the time silent Hollywood films were distributed worldwide and, while many prints were discarded and lost in the US, others survived abroad where they were kept after runs in cinemas had finished.
The White Shadow owes its survival to Jack Murtagh, a projectionist in the provincial New Zealand town of Hastings, who was regarded as an eccentric collector of films, cigarette cards, stamps and coins.
After his death in 1989 Mr Murtagh's private collection of highly flammable nitrate film prints was sent for safekeeping to the national archives in Wellington by his grandson Tony Osborne.
Mr Osborne said "He would be quietly amused by all the attention now generated by these important film discoveries." Other lost films rediscovered in the collection have included a copy of John Ford's 1927 comedy Upstream.
She found two reels marked "Twin Sisters" and one with a label saying "Unidentified American film." On viewing the footage she immediately recognised them as something special.
She said: "I realised that this was more like a film that Hitchcock worked on." David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and a Hitchcock expert, said it was known that production on the film was hampered by the director's "professional jealousy" of his gifted young assistant.
The following year Hitchcock went on to make his feature film directorial debut with The Pleasure Garden, followed by classics like Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds.