Lost Hitchcock silent film turns up in New Zealand

Researchers in New Zealand made an amazing find recently when they discovered the 1924 British silent film “The White Shadow.”

The film is significant because it was one of the first movies made by famed director Alfred Hitchcock, who was its assistant director, writer, editor and production designer.

“We were sort of the end of the line, I think, from the U.S. They obviously traveled to Australia and across to New Zealand, and then when it got to the last screenings in New Zealand here, these productions were just destroyed,” said Brian Scadden, the head of the laboratory at Park Road Post Production in Wellington, where the film will be preserved.

But a local projectionist kept the film and left it to the New Zealand Film Archive after his death in 1989.

Leslie Anne Lewis, an American audio visual archive specialist with the National Film Preservation Foundation, recently examined the collection and came upon three reels, which she painstakingly viewed.

“They were filled with really striking images, images that were enough to pique my curiosity, so I decided that night to start trying to identify the film,” said Lewis. “And during my inspection, I was able to identify two of the film’s stars, Betty Compson and Clive Brook, and the film’s distributor, Selznick,” referring to Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises.

After researching contemporary reviews and summaries, Leslie Anne Lewis finally determined what she had stumbled upon.

“I realized that this was most likely a film that Alfred Hitchcock had worked on,” she said. “It was quite a surprise, and it was the middle of the night when I realized this, and I had no one that I could call and tell!”

The White Shadow is the story of twin sisters, one evil and one innocent. The film’s star, American actress Betty Compson, plays both parts. Park Road Post Production’s Brian Scadden says the film has unique tints that emphasize its drama.

“There’s one part where the leading lady, she goes into the bedroom, and it’s an amber tint, and then she switches the light off, and it goes to quite a bluey-green tint,” said Scadden. “So, whatever the mood is, whatever the time of day is, they have a different tint.”

Film researchers will continue to look for remaining reels of the movie, which may have been destroyed or disintegrated.

Ms. Lewis says one notable observation about this film is that it does not use a technique that later became a Hitchcock signature: a quick shot of the director himself.

“Not that we’ve found so far. Maybe another eagle-eyed viewer will see something, but we’ve been looking pretty closely.”

“The White Shadow” and other old films found in the archive will be preserved during the next three years through a partnership that includes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Some of the films will be made viewable on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s Web site.

A copy of “The White Shadow” will be presented to the British Film Institute, which has an Alfred Hitchcock rescue project.

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