Alfred Hitchcock's early films run the gamut from not-bad to dreary, but they're mainly remarkable for how Hitchcockian they are. By the time The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes showed up in American theaters in the late '30s, Hitchcock had helmed almost 20 feature films, both silent and sound, in genres ranging from melodrama to comedy to, yes, thrillers. And he was already spiking each one with dazzling sequences, pulled tight like a band about to snap. Lions Gate's new three-disc Hitchcock box set contains five movies made between 1927 and 1931, now spiffed up some from their usually awful public-domain presentation. They're best appreciated in pieces. Even the set's weakest film, the silent 1929 seaside romance The Manxman, contains imaginative compositions and smart sequences, like one where the heroine confesses a secret to her lover, and Hitchcock withholds the title card, leaving us with the characters' reactions and our imaginations. If nothing else, this set is an anthology of sequences that use images to tell stories.
In the 1931 shipboard marital-discord comedy Rich And Strange, Hitchcock opens with a crisp, blackly satirical montage of London office drones, and contrasts it later with a deliriously impressionistic trip to Paris. In the middle of the bone-dry melodrama The Skin Game—based on a John Galsworthy play about a feud between the landed gentry—Hitchcock inserts an auction scene that builds momentum with quick cuts between the bidders, then holds for a long time on the fallen face of a loser. In the overlong 1930 courtroom-drama/backstage mystery Murder!, Hitchcock delivers two bravura sequences: one where he stays with an empty jury room while the verdict's being read just outside, and one where the murderer becomes haunted by the superimposed face of his victim, and hangs himself in front of a circus audience.
The one start-to-finish success here is the silent 1927 boxing melodrama The Ring, a keen example of how to get a lot out of a little. Hitchcock's script—written with his wife Alma—sets a corny love triangle against a backdrop of jazz-age seediness. But while the story is unsophisticated, the execution is sublime, filled with POV shots of carnivals, close-ups of boxers in action, off-kilter montages of wild parties, and conspicuous-but-not-overbearing uses of "rings" as a symbol of fidelity. Once he came to Hollywood, Hitchcock never made another movie like The Ring, but watching it now, it's still obvious who's in charge.
Key features: A too-short documentary, featuring interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and Drew Caspar, among others.