He was dubbed “the master of suspense,” but even that title seems rather insufficient for Sir Alfred. Those who want to plumb the depths of this singular auteur’s body of work will never be short of complexities, idiosyncrasies, irony, paradox, paranoia, sexual deviance (Hitchcock likened Stewart’s obsession in “Vertigo” to necrophilia), and great humor.
Hitch attributes his affinity for wrongly accused characters to an incident from his childhood. Born in London in 1899 to a strict religious family, Alfred was quiet, a loner, and well behaved. When he was six, though, his father sent him to the local police station with a note for the captain to lock him up for a few minutes as a warning to be good. His fear of the police lasted his entire lifetime, so much so that he never had a driver’s license because he feared being stopped.
Never drinking or dating until he was 23, Hitchcock detested surprises. This mania for order caused him to rarely deviate from a carefully planned course in either his life or the making of his films. He and his wife, Alma, always vacationed in the same cities, at the same hotels, insisting on the same suites at those hotels, and rarely going out.
Likewise, Sir Alfred planned his films so carefully that every part of every shot was worked out well before the cameras rolled. He never needed to look behind the camera, and, in fact, considered the actual filming of his vision a necessary evil - the creative satisfaction had already been reached. Though he had some difficulty with actresses like Kim Novak, many of his stars claimed that he rarely discussed their roles with them: he knew his job and respected them for knowing theirs. Consequently, he never forgave Paul Newman for giving him pages of notes on “Torn Curtain.”
His first films were silent pictures, in the ‘20s, in London. He moved to the U.S. to direct “Rebecca” for David O. Selznik in 1940, which earned him his only Oscar. Though it was a fruitful partnership, Hitchcock would produce most of his own films. “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), one of his favorites, was his first big U.S. hit in his own genre. Reaching his peak in the ‘50s and culminating with his most famous film, “Psycho” in 1960, Hitchcock was much less successful in the ‘60s. He returned to London, though, to shoot “Frenzy” (1972), to great acclaim.
Primarily because of the extreme popularity of his television show, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” which ran from 1955 to 1965, Hitch was easily the most famous director in America. Though he was shunned by the Academy for virtually his entire American career, he won countless other awards, and (like Jerry Lewis) was recognized early by the French for his particular genius.
Sir Alfred lived comfortably within the oxymoron of “popular artist.” He eschewed academic discussions of the complexity in his films primarily because he was afraid they would interfere with the box office. He was also genuinely surprised at how serious the critics regarded his work. The films are rife with wry absurdity, irony and comedy; like the dry wit, though, his humor often goes undetected - unless you watch for it diligently.
-- Nate Lee
SOME FAMOUS SCENES:
PSYCHO - The ultra-famous shower scene is the essence of Hitchcock. Besides the terrifying “Zzreeng! Zreeng!” sound effects, there are 75 cuts in 45 seconds. Yet you never actually see steel touch flesh.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST - The other essence of Hitchcock: The silent terror of the plane trying to mow down Cary Grant on an open field with no place to run. -- The chase scene on Mt. Rushmore is fun. Hitchcock claimed that he wanted to shoot Grant hiding in Lincoln’s nose and then having a sneezing attack.
REAR WINDOW - The palpable dread of wife-killer and cutter-upper Raymond Burr catching Grace Kelly in his apartment is second only to the scenes of Burr looking across the courtyard right at the camera, right at Jimmy Stewart, right at us.
VERTIGO - One of the greatest scenes in all Hitchcock, and one that he’d been trying to figure out for fifteen years, is the “vertigo” scene itself. Though he has a disabling fear of heights, Jimmy Stewart is running up the mission stairs after Kim Novak. He stops and looks down the staircase. The next shot is his POV, which conveys his dizziness through the now-famous “track (or dolly) out and zoom forward” maneuver.
NOTORIOUS - The long pull in to Ingrid Bergman holding the key to the Maguffin (wine cellar) just before she sneaks it to Cary Grant is more technical achievement than dramatic, but it’s a beauty.
SOME LESS FAMOUS BUT STILL BRILLIANT SCENES:
THE BIRDS - Watch the intercuts of Tippi Hedren sitting outside of the schoolhouse smoking and the birds gathering on the monkey bars behind her. She doesn’t notice them until every perching space is taken.
SHADOW OF A DOUBT - One of Hitch’s favorites. The close-up of Joseph Cotton spilling the beans at the dinner table about his view of widows is particularly chilling.
FRENZY - One of the best things about the DVD is the hilarious trailer, which starts with Hitch floating along the Thames like a dead body, belly up. Hitch, himself, takes us on a macabre tour of London with great humor and panache. -- Just before the killer strikes again, we follow him and his victim up the stairs of his flat. When they go into the flat, the camera (and the audience) retreats backward (in horror?) down, around the winding stairs and out the street into Covent Garden – in one continuous shot.
DIAL M FOR MURDER - The first of the Grace Kelly films. Hitchcock brought a smash play to the screen yet refused to “open it up,” barely showing anything but the apartment - and in so doing, exhibits his uncanny knowledge of where to place the camera and when to move it. The final scene, of trapping Ray Milland, is the best. Cool to the last, Milland only loses it for seconds before offering everyone drinks.
THE 39 STEPS - This early (1935) spy thriller is as full of humor and irony as it is of suspense. Robert Donat pretends to be an official speaking at an election rally in order to avoid both arrest and enemy agents. Every thing he says is about his predicament, yet it comes across as a rousing political speech - The irony of the ending, too, when Donat forces “Mr. Memory” to reveal on stage the meaning of the 39 steps is brilliant.
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