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Lost Hitchcock film found in New Zealand

August 6, 2011

The discovery of the 1923 film "The White Shadow" with Betty Compson offers scholars a chance to see early Alfred Hitchock.

Researchers combing through a New Zealand film vault have found a lost work of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.

The film, titled “The White Shadow,” was made in 1923 and released in 1924. It may be the earliest known work of Hitchcock, according to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which will help restore the movie along with the New Zealand Film Archive, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Only three reels of the six-reel film are known to have survived, according to the New Zealand Film Archive.

Hitchcock is credited with writing the film as well as being its assistant director, editor and art director. Graham Cutts was the director.

“This is one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work,” David Sterritt, author of “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock,” said in a statement. “These first three reels of ‘The White Shadow’ – more than half the film – offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape.”

Hitchcock was 24 when “The White Shadow” was made. He had broken in to the film industry three years earlier.

Sterritt said having to work under Cutts made Hitchcock’s achievement in “The White Shadow” more remarkable.

“At just 24 years old, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the film’s scenario, designed the sets, edited the footage, and served as assistant director to Graham Cutts, whose professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging,” Sterritt said in the statement.

Film archivists describe “The White Shadow” as “a wild, atmospheric melodrama starring Betty Compson in a dual role as twin sisters, one angelic and the other ‘without a soul.’ ”

It features “mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls,” according to the film archive’s release. “Critics faulted the improbable story but praised the acting and ‘cleverness of the production.’ ”

The three reels of the film were found in the collection of Jack Murtagh, a New Zealand projectionist. His grandson, Tony Osborne, gave the collection to the New Zealand Film Archive after Murtagh died in 1989.

Leslie Anne Lewis of the National Film Preservation Foundation was researching the films in the New Zealand archive when she came across two prints that looked to her like the work of a master, according to the archive.

The New Zealand archive’s inventory listed the film as “Two Sisters” since it was missing its opening credits. Lewis was able to use the film’s stars, distributor and storylines to link it to movie reviews from the time and make a positive identification, according to the archive.

The reels are on highly flammable nitrate. Technicians at Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, will make black-and-white duplicate negatives as part of the restoration process.

“We feel privileged to be involved in such an important project,” lab chief Brian Scadden said in a statement.

Internet Movie Database lists Hitchcock as a director of 67 titles, both movies and television. He was nominated for the best director Oscar five times with no wins, but his 1940 film “Rebecca” won for best picture. He received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for lifetime achievement during the 1967 Oscar ceremonies.

Hitchcock directed his last film, “Family Plot,” in 1976. Other notable films include “The Birds” (1963), “Psycho” (1960), “Rear Window” (1954) and “Lifeboat” (1944). He died in 1980.

Once “The White Shadow” is restored, plans will be made for public screenings and online viewing, according to the film archive.

Because only the first three reels of the film have been found, the ending will, of course, be a cliffhanger

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