Hitchcock and the mystery of the tea cup

How a cup of tea shed new light on The Pleasure Garden, Alfred Hitchcock’s very first film as director.

Bryony Dixon
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The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The Pleasure Garden (1925)

Among the knottiest problems faced during the BFI’s project to restore Alfred Hitchcock’s nine surviving silent films was how to reconcile four different film versions of The Pleasure Garden, the Master of Suspense’s 1925 debut as director.

After scouring the world’s film collections for vintage prints of the film, our technical selector Claire West drew up a complex table of shots from each of the four sources, revealing that each had footage missing, but also that each contained unique footage not found in the other versions. The discovery of extra footage during a restoration is both a blessing and a curse – of course we are thrilled that extra scenes survive, but it makes the job of the restorer considerably more challenging.

It’s difficult to hold the continuity of shots from four different versions of a film of over an hour’s running time in one’s head, so it was good to have a small team of three, each with a particular area of knowledge. There is really no way to do this kind of editing job except by doggedly going from shot to shot making decisions as you go, based on forensic detail – position of splices, quality of the image, number of generations away from the original negative, knowledge of the way films were made at that period from a technical and artistic standpoint, and familiarity with the individual prints you are using for the restoration.

During the course of the editing we made several interesting discoveries. First, to our relief, we found that all versions of the film used the same shots. In Hitchcock’s later films, such as The Ring (1927) or Champagne (1928), we know that multiple different shots of the same scene were kept to create domestic and foreign versions.

More exciting was the discovery of a couple of individual shots that we had not seen in the BFI’s existing version. The first is a close-up of flowers and an apple with a bite taken out of it. This clearly belonged in a scene taking place in the Italian sequence on the morning after the wedding night, and continues a symbolic theme in which the innocence of the heroine, Patsy, is signified by flowers.

The other shot was more mysterious. It is a close-up of a cup of tea: a seemingly insignificant shot that we would have to try and find a place for. We noticed that something was floating in the tea – a stray tea leaf. It looked odd and messy, and seemed a strange choice on the part of the filmmaker, until I remembered something my grandmother used to say – if you found a tea leaf floating in your tea it meant a stranger was coming.

Examining the other shots in the scene where Hugh and Patsy are having tea together, we noticed a shot where Patsy looks down at her cup and points something out to Hugh. At that moment they both react to a knock at the door and in walks Levet (Miles Mander), the stranger predicted by the tea leaf.

Both of these tiny additions to the known footage of The Pleasure Garden underpin the symbolism built up through the film. There are several other such omens about the mismatch between Patsy and Levet – the fact that the dog doesn’t like Levet (whereas he likes Hugh) and the moment Patsy first wakes after the wedding night she is visibly disturbed as if by bad dreams. But it starts with her first impression of Levet, which is one of dismay and distrust – in stark contrast with her meeting with Hugh, which is as natural as can be. The moral being that Patsy should have trusted her subconscious and heeded the warning in the tea leaves!

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