He spent years at Gainsborough Pictures in Islington, north London (or Famous Players-Lasky as it was when he arrived) crafting caption cards, editing scripts and designing sets before he was given the chance to direct his own films. His early features are far more accomplished, and more personal, than many a director's debut. And if you're familiar with his famous sound movies, you'll find much in them that prefigures his most celebrated suspense-filled sequences.
The British Film Institute in London has prepared a full Hitchcock retrospective for the summer of 2012, with full restorations of the director's lesser-known features at the heart of the festivities. So, here are 10 usually-overlooked Hitchcock films – five silent, five sound – you won't want to miss.
The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)The Lodger is one of the director's earliest efforts, but it's distinctly, horribly Hitchcockian. In this twisted thriller, handsome Ivor Novello plays a mysterious stranger whose late-night comings and goings seem to coincide with a string of violent murders. Could he be the "Avenger", who preys on blondes in dimly lit backstreets? His landlady thinks so, and you will too.
As the landlady's fears gather momentum, her fair-haired daughter begins to fall for the lodger, while her boyfriend, a policeman supposedly on the killer's trail, hangs around making ghoulish remarks: "I'm keen on golden hair myself, same as The Avenger is."
The cloud of suspicion and guilt that surrounds everyone makes this a queasy, unsettling film – and essential viewing for any Hitchcock fan. There's visual flair here, not least in the elaborately designed captions, and a disconcerting ending that will make you question almost everything that went before.
The Ring (1927)Set in the east end of London that Hitchcock knew so well, this silent drama plays out in the sleazy business of boxing, made sleazier by infidelity, ambition and rivalry.
The Ring is a showcase for the young Hitchcock's editing panache: the experimental, Soviet-influenced montage that would surface so violently in Psycho. The title refers to the boxing arena, a wedding band and a bracelet that heavyweight champion Bob (Ian Hunter) gives to the fiancée (Hitchcock favourite Lillian Hall-Davis) of young hopeful Jack (Carl Brisson).
The theme continues and multiplies: Jack is even nicknamed "One Round". The fight sequences are giddily exciting, and the two contrasting party scenes are not to be missed. PH
The Farmer's Wife (1927)
In this adaptation of a popular play by Eden Philpotts, Hitchcock gives a knockabout rural comedy some painfully sharp edges. The usually suave Jameson Thomas dons outsize sideburns to play Samuel Sweetland, a gruff, widowed, well-to-do farmer. Having finally decided to remarry, Sweetland draws up a list of "possibles" from among the village women with the help of his winsome housekeeper (Lilian Hall-Davis).
What follows is a series of hilariously ungallant proposals, with the comedy of embarrassment leavened by slapstick.
Many people say Hitchcock didn't understand women; here he at least nails a portrayal of a man for whom they are an unknown, terrifying species. The film is an unexpected guilty treat, like eating pudding for breakfast. It's not what we expect from Hitch, although Francois Truffaut did say it was shot "like a thriller". The upshot is that the director's brutally economical style whisks the plot ahead before the gags outstay their welcome. PH
The Manxman (1929)
Another love triangle, similar in some ways to The Ring, but with a picturesque coastal setting: Polperro, Cornwall, standing in for the Isle of Man. Fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson) and lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen) are upstanding chaps and firm friends, but then Pete goes to sea and asks his pal to look after his girl Kate (Anny Ondra) while he's away ... Sure, the plot is melodramatic and with little excitement of the violent and sinister sort we expect from Hitchcock, but this is a fine film.
Hitchcock teases the audience, and torments his characters, with a game of hide-and-seek. Someone always knows something that someone else doesn't: occasionally it's the audience who is in the dark. The clandestine affair here becomes the bomb under the table from Hitchcock's famous definition of suspense. The question is: when it will be discovered and how much damage will it do? PH
So good you'll watch it twice. Blackmail was Britain's first full-length "talkie", but Hitchcock shot a complete version as a silent too. Watch both and you'll see the height of Hitchcock's mastery of silent cinema, and a precocious confidence with sound design, typified by the famous "knife" sequence.
Anny Ondra is Alice, a young woman who one night defends herself against an attacker with, yes, a very large and lethal knife, and is subsequently targeted by a shifty blackmailer. Just like the landlady's daughter in The Lodger, Alice is stepping out with a copper, which only complicates matters, and increases her feelings of misplaced guilt.
Alice, who works in her parents' shop in west London, is rather plummily voiced by Joan Barry in the sound version (Ondra was Czech) and Blackmail was lumbered with possibly the worst tagline for a thriller ever: "Our mother tongue as it should be spoken." But, elocution aside, both versions of Blackmail are eloquent cinema. That knife sequence, for example, is just as chilling wihout sound: watch the shadow of Alice's hand hover over that gleaming blade. PH