Why are we so keen to find it?
Because it’s Hitchcock. Among the most ‘wanted’ of all missing films, The Mountain Eagle is the only one of Hitchcock’s films as director to be lost (save for the never completed Number Thirteen, 1922), and hence something of a Holy Grail for film historians. It was dismissed by Hitchcock, in conversation with François Truffaut, as “a very bad movie"; but then the director could be brutally disparaging about his early films, notably The Farmer’s Wife (1927) and The Manxman (1929), the second of which in particular is widely judged a very fine example of advanced silent film style.
Shot between his directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden (1925), and his breakthrough third film, The Lodger (1926), it’s unlikely that The Mountain Eagle is a lost masterpiece, and both the synopsis (see below) and contemporary reviews suggest that the story at least is weak. But many of the same reviewers also praised the direction and photography, and it’s almost certain, as the available stills suggest, that the film contained fascinating glimpses of the Hitchcock style in embryonic form, and provided further insights into his German influences.
What’s it about?
Beatrice, a beautiful schoolteacher, forced out of her mountain village when she rejects the advances of the powerful local Justice of the Peace, Pettigrew, and finding companionship and ultimately marriage with a hermitic stranger, known as ‘Fearogod’. Subsequently, Pettigrew frames Fearogod for the murder of his son. The story encapsulates several elements that would come to be seen as characteristic of Hitchcock, with a core triangular relationship, a sexually vulnerable young woman and a miscarriage of justice. The mountain intrigue calls to mind sections of his later British films The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Secret Agent (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1937).
This is the most thorough synopsis of the film, from The Bioscope of 7 October 1926:
“Beatrice Brent, school teacher in a small mountain village, incurs the enmity of Pettigrew, the local Justice of the Peace and owner of the village stores, because he believes that she encourages the attentions of his son Edward, a cripple, who takes evening lessons. Pettigrew, while questioning Beatrice, is himself influenced by her charm and attempts liberties which she strongly resents. He is so furious at the rebuff that he proclaims her as a wanton and she is driven from the village by the inhabitants. Beatrice is saved from their fury by a mysterious stranger known as Fearogod, who lives a solitary life in a cabin to which he takes her for shelter. To stop all scandal, Fearogod takes Beatrice down to the village and compels Pettigrew to marry them, explaining to her that he will help her to get a divorce. Beatrice, however, is content to leave the situation as it is, but Pettigrew, furious with rage, takes advantage of the fact that his son has left the village and arrests Fearogod for his murder. In spite of the fact that there is no vestige of evidence that young Pettigrew has been murdered, Fearogod is kept in prison for over a year, when he decides to escape. He finds that his wife has a baby and he goes off with them to the mountains. When they find that the baby is taken ill, Fearogod goes back to the village for a doctor, where he sees old Pettigrew. Some doubt as to which of the men is going to attack the other first is settled by an onlooker firing off a gun which wounds Pettirgrew in the shoulder. The sudden return of his son Edwared convinces the old man of the futility of proceeding with his accusations of murder, so he makes the best of matters by shaking hands with the man he persecuted and all is supposed to end happily.”
Though it was certainly shown in Germany (as Der Bergalder) and seems also to have had a US release (as Fear o’God), there is some doubt as to whether it ever had a commercial release in Britain. Film historian Jenny Hammerton has noted that although some advance publicity suggested a release date of May 23rd 1927, the edition of the trade magazine Kinematograph Weekly for that week makes no mention of The Mountain Eagle, and carries instead a full-page, colour advertisement for Downhill, Hitchcock’s fourth film. Hammerton speculates that the distributor, W&F, may have ‘shelved’ The Mountain Eagle for fear that it would undermine the good critical reputation Hitchcock had established with The Lodger. That said, Donald Spoto, in his 1983 biography ‘The Life of Alfred Hitchcock’, seems convinced that the film was shown in the UK to an indifferent response, although he cites no source for his claim that “the London moviegoing public responded with less than wild enthusiasm”. Spoto goes on to imply that Hitchcock himself may have had a part in its disappearance, which is plausible.
What else do we know about it?
After a five-year apprenticeship at Gainsborough Pictures, Hitchcock was sent to Germany in 1925, were he would learn at the feet of some of the masters of the German cinema, including Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and Friedrich Murnau, whose films would remain an influence throughout Hitchcock’s career. The Mountain Eagle was shot partly on location in the Austrian Tyrroll (and, apparently, in Paris), with interiors filmed at Berlin’s Emelka studios, as were those of its predecessor, The Pleasure Garden. Though the setting was purportedly Kentucky (with the studio apparently hoping for success in the American market), reviewers seem to have been uncertain: The Bioscope noted that “the locality is not indicated, though the village in which the action takes place is obviously continental.”
Thanks to the German connection, Hitchcock was able to cast Bernhard Goetzke, who had played Death in Fritz Lang’s Expressionist triptych Der Müde Tod (Destiny, 1921), which Hitchcock later described as his favourite German film. Alongside Goetzke were Malcolm Keen, who would reappear in The Lodger and The Manxman, and Hollywood actress Nita Naldi, billed as a successor to exotic vamp Theda Bara. Naldi was Gainsborough’s choice, and a strange one for the role of the demure schoolteacher Beatrice. “She had fingernails out to there,” said Hitchcock, “ridiculous!”
Does anything survive?
Until a few years ago, all that was known to survive was a set of six production stills held in the BFI’s Still, Posters and Designs collections; the best known of these shows the young Hitchcock directing, with his then fiancée and soon his wife, Alma Reville, to his left; the others offer intriguing glimpses of scenes from the film. In the late 1990s, however, a much larger – perhaps complete – collection of scene stills, together with several showing Hitchcock (often with Alma) on location, were found by J. Lary Kuhns among Hitchcock’s own collections. There is no sign of a script, although Truffaut in his interviews with Hitchcock, apparently refers to ‘the scenario’ when he summarises the plot. He may, however, have meant a synopsis taken from a contemporary review. For many years, there have been rumours that extracts from the film are held on VHS by a wealthy and secretive collector in Eastern Europe, but these have never been substantiated.
Kinematograph Weekly felt that “Alfred Hitchcock’s direction is, as usual, thoroughly imaginative,” but complained that “he has rather over-stressed the slow tempo, and has had a story which is too full of unconvincing twists.” It praised the characterisation and noted that “many individual scenes are very cleverly handled,” concluding, “the mountain scenery is good, and the small village interiors and exteriors are also sound. Baron Ventimiglia’s photography is excellent.”
The Bioscope agreed that Hitchcock “has not been particularly well served by his author,” but praised his “skilful and at times brilliant direction”, as well as the “skilfully directed” performances, the “beautiful pictures of mountain scenery... and picturesque timber interiors” and the “unusually artistic lighting effects and excellent photography”
Mark Duguid, Senior Curator, Archive Online