NEW YORK — ALFRED HITCHCOCK is such a renowned filmmaker that one would expect his many fans, critics, and commentators to be thoroughly familiar with his every work, no matter how minor.
Hitchcock had such a long and active career, however, that some of his less-celebrated pictures have been overlooked since their original release. And two of them, made as propaganda films during World War II, have hardly been viewed by anyone.
Now these missing links in Hitchcock's filmography, "Bon Voyage" and "Aventure Malgache," have been brought to light by a creative American distributor and some helpful partners in England, where Hitchcock started his career. Both pictures had been withheld from exhibition because of their special history as wartime productions, and because "Aventure Malgache" had never been released in the first place, due to concern over its complex narrative and rather skeptical tone.
Spurred by Milestone Film & Video, an enterprising company based in New York, the British Film Institute (BFI) and others recently prodded the British government to free the two movies from their restricted status. The effort succeeded, and new prints and subtitles were commissioned with help from the National Film and Television Archive in England.
The two movies are now touring under BFI auspices, in a program called "Early Hitchcock" that also includes major productions from the director's early years in the English studio system. The wartime films are being released, as well, and will be available as a Milestone home-video release by next spring.
In the book "Hitchcock," published by Simon & Schuster, the filmmaker's account of his wartime activity is anything but romantic or self-serving. "I felt the need to make a little contribution to the war effort," he says, "and I was both overweight and overage for military service."
Fearing that he'd regret it later if he didn't "get right into the atmosphere of war," Hitchcock flew from Hollywood to London and accepted a proposal from the British Ministry of Information cinema chief. The agreement called for him to make "two small films that were tributes to the work of the French Resistance," to be shown in parts of France where freedom fighters were gaining ground.
The movies are certainly small, running about a half-hour each and starring members of the Moliere Players, a group of French performers living in exile in Britain during the Nazi occupation of France. Both films are recognizably Hitchcockian in their themes and preoccupations, however.
"Bon Voyage" traces the experiences of a young Royal Air Force gunner who has escaped to Britain from a German prison camp. He attributes his successful journey to aid from a Polish prisoner who traveled with him; but after questioning from a Free French officer, he learns that his guide was actually a Gestapo agent. The film shows the high points of his escape once more, with the benefit of harrowing new information.
The film's depiction of ambiguity between virtue and villainy, and its suggestion that reality and illusion may be impossible to tell apart, are as Hitchcockian as anything in the director's more famous stories.
`AVENTURE Malgache" brings in another theme that Hitchcock frequently explored: performance and role-playing as activities in everyday life as well as in movies and plays. The plot deals with a lawyer who helps Resistance fighters join their comrades through a hidden escape route, and a police chief who opposes him. Based on true events, the film reflects conflict within the Free French community - which helps explain the picture's rather ambivalent mood, and the resulting uneasiness that kept it from be ing shown.
Hitchcock was not the only important British filmmaker to assist the war effort via cinema. In background material from Milestone, film historian J. Bret Wood lists a number of great directors, from Michael Powell and David Lean to Carol Reed and Noel Coward, who "mingled drama with data" in pictures made even before Britain's full-fledged involvement in the war.
Despite his membership in this group, Hitchcock was never a very political filmmaker - such compelling war-era movies as "Saboteur" and "Lifeboat" notwithstanding. "Bon Voyage" and "Aventure Malgache" are minor works, of interest more for their history than their aesthetics. Still, they demonstrate Hitchcock's ability to probe his favorite philosophical themes in any circumstance.
* Remaining dates in the `Early Hitchcock' tour include: Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, now through July 19; University of California at Los Angeles, through July 17; Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, through July 30; Webster University in St. Louis, Aug. 7-30; Cleveland Museum of Art, Aug. 29-Sept. 29; Portland (Oregon) Art Museum, Sept. 9-30. `Bon Voyage' and `Aventure Malgache' begin their commercial release July 23 at the Biograph in Washington, and are expected to open widely in coming weeks.