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White Shadow, The (1924)

BFI / New Zealand Film Archive

Main image of White Shadow, The (1924)
35mm, 90 min, black & white
DirectorGraham Cutts
Production CompanyBalcon, Freedman and Saville
ProducerMichael Balcon
 Victor Saville
Assistant DirectorAlfred Hitchcock
Original screenplayMichael Morton
Adaptation & DialogueAlfred Hitchcock
EditorAlma Reville

Cast: Betty Compson (Nancy Brent/Georgina Brent); Clive Brook (Robin Field); Henry Victor (Louis Chadwick); A. B. Imeson (Mr Brent); Olaf Hytten (Herbert Barnes); Daisy Campbell (Elizabeth Brent)

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A young American man is captivated by a pair of beautiful identical twin sisters, assuming they are one and the same.

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The White Shadow disappeared not long after its release, and was believed lost forever - until 2011, when three reels (of six) were rediscovered in the collections of the New Zealand Film Archive. Today we can judge for ourselves a film that was perhaps unfairly maligned in its day, and trace another stage in the development of the young Alfred Hitchcock.

The film was made back to back with the wildly successful WWI movie Woman to Woman (1923), in a two-picture deal with American star Betty Compson. The two films shared the same team, director Graham Cutts and assistant Hitchcock - in a variety of roles from editor to set designer and scenario writer. It also reunited Clive Brook and Betty Compson in the lead roles.

The film was hastily written by playwright Charles Morton when the deal to star Compson in The Prude's Fall (1925) fell through. This may explain the mixed reception to the film, which had a slightly confusing plot featuring identical twins (played by Compson), who sometimes switch roles. Clive Brook's Robin falls for the vivacious, ‘bad’ twin, Nancy (a 'girl without a soul', as we're told in an intertitle), and is baffled when the ‘good’ twin, Georgina, seems not to recognise him. It becomes more baffling still when Georgina plays the now missing Nancy in order to attract Robin.

The titles suggesting Nancy's underlying nihilism ("I am sick of everything", she tells her sister in a note), and the ultimate migration of the soul (the 'white shadow' of the title) of one twin into the body of the other may have struck the audience as a little overblown, to say the least. But production values were high, with charming scenes on a channel ferry at the start and in the Devon countryside, where Robin pursues his romance with the twins. Later the action moves to Paris and a lively bohemian nightclub - a setting Cutts would revisit in his trio of films with Ivor Novello, starting with 1925's The Rat.

The split-screen work which allows Compson to be in the same shot twice is extremely well done and would be to the credit of the cameramen, Claude McDonnell, who would go on to shoot Hitchcock's Downhill and Easy Virtue (both 1927). Coincidentally, perhaps, doubles and cases of mistaken identity would be a recurring feature in Hitchcock's later work.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
1. Robin's plans (4:03)
2. 'She's not the kind of girl you think she is' (6:39)
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