The connection between Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock is a familiar theme: two thriller specialists, two Europeans in Hollywood. But less well known is Hitchcock’s attempt to make a film along the lines of Metropolis. While the master of suspense dabbled in other genres, from the screwball Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941) to the musical Waltzes from Vienna (1934), he never got round to sci-fi. Yet in the autumn of 1926, shortly after making his breakthrough film The Lodger, “the first true Hitchcock” in his own estimation, just such a film was announced.
Metropolis had not yet been released, but everyone knew about it. Lang’s film had gone into production in May 1925, before Hitchcock started work on his first feature, The Pleasure Garden, and was still going more than a year later, by which time Hitchcock had made two further films. Hitchcock would have had an insider’s view of the unfinished epic because his friend Walter Mycroft, film critic of the Evening Standard, had seen parts of it while on a visit to Ufa’s studio near Berlin at the start of 1926.
“Metropolis, which Mr. Lang envisaged to me nearly two years ago, is still not complete, but from what I saw of the film already taken and the film in process of being taken it is going to mark a new turning point in kinema methods,” he wrote in the Sunday Herald. “The story is an expression of modern life, a thrilling picture-poem of machinery and work in a fantasy of ultimate evolution, a combination of Maeterlinck and Marinetti”, the former being a Symbolist (meaning anti-realist) playwright; the latter being the leader of the Futurists.
News of Hitchcock’s sci-fi project broke in October 1926, a month after The Lodger was first shown to the press. P.L. Mannock of the Kinematograph Weekly, who had spoken to Hitchcock about his “film laid in the future”, wrote that “If we except ‘Metropolis,’ it will be the first screen forecast of days to come,” the last words being a deliberate reference to a novella by one of Lang’s inspirations, H.G. Wells. “Television will be used dramatically, and Sir Alan Cobham will probably be consultant on big episodes of the air.”
Mycroft, who practically served as Hitchcock’s press agent in these years, had announced the film a few days earlier as “a projection into the life of a generation ahead, a life of giant air liners, and such developments as television in terms of telephone call boxes”.
Both the references to television and to aviation place the film in its moment. The first month of 1926 had seen the first demonstration of the ‘televisor’ apparatus by John Logie Baird, at his laboratory in Frith Street, Soho, above what is now Bar Italia, and experimental work on the new medium continued through the year.
Alan Cobham, meanwhile, embodied a certain vision of Britain’s future as an imperial power – a vision that endured despite the country’s bankruptcy following the First World War, and its eclipse by the US as global hegemon. A much-publicised flight of his from earlier in the year had been filmed and released in cinemas as With Cobham to the Cape, charting a journey over Britain’s colonial territory in Africa from one end of the continent to the other; a route over which Cecil Rhodes had once dreamt of building a railway.
More recently Cobham had completed an even longer journey to Australia and back, during which his engineer was shot dead in the skies over Iraq – a new imperial territory which the RAF had taken the lead in subduing. At the time his collaboration with Hitchcock was announced, he had only recently returned, landing his de Havilland seaplane outside the Palace of Westminster, in front of a crowd that included the plane’s designer Geoffrey de Havilland, cousin of Olivia and of Hitchcock’s future star Joan Fontaine. The knighthood followed immediately afterwards.
There was no escaping the British empire – the company Hitchcock was supposed to make this film for, British National, was intimately bound up in a political initiative to revive domestic film production, supply the colonies with British fare, and thereby turn back the tide of what was considered propaganda for the American way; while the company he had made The Lodger for, Gainsborough, seems to have been bankrolled by the heirs of a South African diamond fortune.
Hitchcock’s Metropolis was not to be, and Hitchcock seems not to have mentioned it ever again. He would claim that “soon after the General Strike”, which took place in May 1926, he had “wanted to put the whole thing into a film”, but knew that the censor would never have allowed it. However, it is difficult to square this claim with the total lack of interest in politics that marked both his films and his public utterances; and in reality, in the immediate aftermath of the strike, he was preparing an adaptation of John Buchan’s anti-communist adventure story Huntingtower.
Lang’s Metropolis opened in London in March 1927, at the Marble Arch Pavilion on Oxford Street – two months after The Lodger opened at the same venue. Both had posters made up by the modernist designer E. McKnight Kauffer, though neither were used. It was a shortened version, and Walter Mycroft claimed that it was “diffuse and chaotic” by comparison with what he had seen in his private screening more than a year earlier in Berlin.
H.G. Wells had published A Story of the Days to Come in 1899, the year of Hitchcock’s birth, together with another sci-fi novel, When the Sleeper Wakes, which Wells himself saw as one of Lang’s main sources. His objection to Metropolis, however, was not that Lang had borrowed from him, but that he was stuck in the 19th century, when dense, “vertical” cities looked like the future.
As Wells wrote in his critique of Metropolis, published in the New York Times, he himself had revised this prediction as early as 1901, in his book Anticipations, which foresaw a shift from “densely-congested ‘million-cities’” like Chicago or “the Hankow trinity of cities”, which includes Wuhan, to a “new and entirely different phase of human distribution” in diffused “urban regions”, characterised by the “little private imperium such as a house or cottage ‘in its own grounds’ affords,” equipped with “photographic and phonographic apparatus”.
In other words, Wells had seen the future as Los Angeles, well before Los Angeles had a million inhabitants, and well before one of its districts became the centre of the global film business. Hitchcock took his time getting there. It was only in 1939 that he made the journey to Hollywood, and while one could not deny that he prospered there, it never seemed that he settled either. There is plenty of London in his British films, nothing of LA in his American ones.
It is easy to imagine the young Hitchcock as a reader of Wells – not only the sci-fi stories but the realistic stories of the lower-middle-class Victorian-Edwardian environment in which Hitchcock passed his formative years. Indeed, his refusal to adapt to southern Californian ways is one sign of his deep attachment to the outlook he forged as a young man in what still must have seemed the world’s greatest metropolis.
Henry K. Miller’s The First True Hitchcock is out now via University of California Press.