Alfred Hitchcock
One of the earliest films Alfred Hitchcock worked on has been found. Image: twm 1340/Flickr/BY SA

“The White Shadow,” a silent film long thought lost, has surfaced in New Zealand. It is an important early work in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. It was not, however, as some have reported, his directorial debut.

Archived in New Zealand

The first three reels, about 30 minutes, of a film originally twice that long has been discovered in the Wellington, New Zealand, Film Archive. The print of “The White Shadow,” a.k.a. “White Shadows” (1923), belonged to collector Jack Murtagh. His film collection went to the Archive after his 1989 death.

Scholars say find is significant

David Sterritt, author of “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock,” called the discovery:

“One of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work. 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.”

A New Zealand Film Archive press release describes the film as a “wild, atmospheric” melodrama in which Betty Compson stars in a dual role as twins.

Not Hitchcock’s first film

Some reports have mistakenly said that “The White Shadow” was the first film directed by Hitchcock.  In fact it was directed by Graham Cutts. Hitchcock wrote, edited and was art director on the project. But it was not his first screen credit.

Film scholar Andre Soares wrote that “The White Shadow” was made as a quick afterthought when a previous collaboration between the director, producer, star and writer, “Woman to Woman” (1923 ), became an unexpected hit. “Woman to Woman” itself remains lost and is considered one the British Film Institute’s 75 Most Wanted Films.

A big flop

Producer Michael Balcon would later say of “The White Shadow”:

“(We were so) engrossed in our first production, we had made no preparations for the second. Caught on the hop, we rushed into production with a story called ‘The White Shadow.’ It was as big a flop as ‘Woman to Woman’ had been a success.”

Other lost films found

“The White Shadow” is not the first “lost” film to be discovered in Murtagh’s collection. American director John Ford’s “Upstream” (1927) was found in 2009. Archivists say it is possible that the second half of “The White Shadow” may yet turn up as well.

A distinguished career

Alfred Hitchcock made his directorial debut in 1925 with “The Pleasure Garden.” He went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed and influential directors in film history. Movies like “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo” and “Psycho” earned him the title of “the master of suspense.” He died in 1980.


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