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The Arts

Early silent films to screen in Brattleboro

Works from Alfred Hitchcock and groundbreaking woman director Lois Weber come to Epsilon Spires

BRATTLEBORO—Two examples of early cinema will be shown at Epsilon Spires on Saturday, March 18, starting at 8 P.M.: Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film, Blackmail! (1929, 76 minutes), and Lois Weber’s Suspense! (1913, 10 minutes). This event kicks off the spring 2023 series of silent films screened with live musical accompaniment in Epsilon Spires’ converted historic chapel.

Blackmail! follows the travails of a young woman who kills a man while defending herself from assault and is then blackmailed by an opportunistic witness to the act.

Event organizers say in this early Hitchcock film, “many of the auteur’s signatures are already evident: a young blond woman in peril, a climactic chase scene in a culturally significant location, and a penchant for innovation and experimentation.”

Hitchcock studied the work of German Expressionist filmmakers, including F. W. Murnau as he worked on The Last Laugh, and this influence is evident here. The original master of manipulating perspective, Murnau taught him how to achieve the maximum effect of storytelling with very few resources.

Blackmail! has achieved widespread acclaim, including being preserved by the British Film Institute. Viewers should be on the lookout for Hitchcock’s longest cameo.

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, the evening opens with the short thriller Suspense! Early feminist film pioneer Weber uses innovative split screen, inventive point-of-view shots, and a high-speed car chase to tell the story of a young husband trying desperately to save his wife and child from a home invasion.

Weber directed more than 135 films and was the first American woman to direct a feature-length film and one of the first to own her own film studio. Suspense! has been preserved by both the British Film Institute and the United States National Film Registry.

Live musical accompaniment will be provided by organist Dennis James on Epsilon Spires’ historic Estey pipe organ. James has been performing alongside silent films since 1969 and has played a pivotal role in the international revival of silent films paired with live music.

In the 1980s, James toured with silent film stars Lillian Gish and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, providing musical accompaniment. His research and experiences have led him to develop performance practices using the surviving source materials from the silent film era with unwavering commitment to stylistic integrity.

His production company, Silent Film Concerts, has amassed one of the largest private libraries of authentic silent film music in existence today, acquired from film musicians, film music collectors, and historic theaters throughout the world. It includes complete original film scores plus hundreds of published generic silent film music compositions that are used to create historically accurate new musical scores where the originals do not survive.

This will be James’s third appearance at Epsilon Spires, having previously scored Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera.

Tickets for this event start at $5 on a sliding scale and go up to $20. Tickets are available for purchase at $2 from every ticket goes directly toward the historic preservation of the venue. Refreshments will be provided.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #706 (Wednesday, March 15, 2023). This story appeared on page B6.

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