Whether it’s a discovery made due to one man’s hoarding or his collecting habits is unclear — either way, a gem has been uncovered in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s very first film, locked away for almost 80 years.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened the first 30 minutes of the famed director’s 1923 film “The White Shadow” on Thursday at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. Hitchcock wrote, designed, edited and assistant-directed the film — “an atmospheric melodrama starring Betty Compson in a dual role as twin sisters, one angelic and the other ‘without a soul’” — when he was just 24 years old.
The silent film was discovered thanks to a large treasure trove of films left by an avid collector and cinema projectionist named James Murtagh in New Zealand. The lone print was stored in a garden shed in the North Island town of Hastings, apparently for decades, until the New Zealand Film Archive got their hands on the hundreds of films in Murtagh’s collection after his death in 1989.
How could such a rare piece of film history turn up in a small New Zealand town, of all places? The land of the Kiwis used to be the last stop on overseas distribution tours from Hollywood, and studios preferred to avoid the hassle of shipping the prints back to the States, opting to discard the films instead.
So Murtagh, who reportedly found it impossible to let go of the films he screened, amassed a rather impressive collection; he also had the only surviving copy the 1927 film “Upstream,” directed by John Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “Stagecoach”).
Thanks to some film preservationists and the mild climate of New Zealand, “The White Shadow” is in pretty good condition. Of course, the film buffs are all about this find. The chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, David Sterritt, explains, “These first three reels offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape.” The film will no doubt be a must-see for students of Hitchcock’s legendary techniques of suspense and mystery.