Sunday, August 13, 2006


"If I made Cinderella, the audience would be looking out for a body in the coach." -- Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock's deliberately press agent-conceived public image -- the affably deadpan and macabre, rotund gnome who appeared in almost all of his films in winking cameos -- belied his meticulous, bullying personality as a director, although it did serve to create for him the franchise status of beloved ruler of the suspense-thriller (the so-called "Master of Suspense"), a status which is, in turn, somewhat belittling of a director whose technical skill and fluid use of the cinema vocabulary rivaled the best of the rest, no matter what their specialties of genre.

Born on this day in 1899 in London, after a harsh Jesuit upbringing, the chubby, unimpressive youth finished trade school (studying mechanics, acoustics and navigation) and in 1919 he insinuated his way onto the Islington studio lot of an American film unit, Famous Players-Lasky, with some of his own hand-painted title card designs. There he had the opportunity to watch closely and learn from the American filmmakers (who were far more technically-adept than British filmmakers of the time) while doing everything from scriptwriting, set decorating, editing and second unit directing, before Lasky folded the unit due to poor prospects in the British market in 1922.

He stayed on as independent film companies rented the Islington studios, and eventually began to direct for the new British studio of Balcon-Saville-Freedman. With admiration for the work of German filmmakers such as F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and an American sense of technical ingenuity, he did his best with below-average material, garnering critical attention when the material seemed to fit his particular literary sensitivities (and those of his wife, frequent collaborator Alma Reville). The Lodger (1926, with Ivor Novello) was his first success, and not incidentally it had a plot which would resurface in Hitchcock's best work -- the story of the innocent man accused and hunted by authorities and ordinary bystanders convinced of their moral superiority. By the time he made Britain's first sound film, Blackmail (1929, which went beyond the call of duty by featuring expressionistic sound gimmicks), he was already being hailed as the genius of British film.

Frustrated by being handed material unsuited to his temperament (including plays by Sean O'Casey and Noel Coward), he signed with Gaumont-British and was given free-reign over his choice of material, resulting in a string of 6 great and near-great thrillers which at their best combined breezy, witty dialogue with deathly ominousness: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, with Peter Lorre), The 39 Steps (1935, with Robert Donat and the first in Hitchcock's line of cool blonde leading ladies, Madeleine Carroll), Secret Agent (1936, based on the Ashenden stories of Somerset Maugham, with Carroll, Lorre, John Gielgud and a sinister pre-Marcus Welby Robert Young), Sabotage (1937, adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel), Young and Innocent (1937) and The Lady Vanishes (1938, with Margaret Lockwood, Dame May Whitty and Michael Redgrave).

Selznick brought him to the U.S. in 1940, beginning a period which some rare critics and jealous supporters of British film see as the studio-tampered decline of his career, others as the beginning of the well-produced mature "masterpiece" period. With Rebecca (1940, from the Daphne DuMaurier novel, with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) he took a romantic novel and made it into a psychological thriller blessed with the opulent production values of Hollywood; it won the best picture Oscar that year, the only Hitchcock film to do so. After the stylish B-movie Foreign Correspondent (1940, with Joel McCrea and Laraine Day) and, strangely enough, a Carole Lombard screwball comedy, Hitchcock spent the rest of the 1940s making top-shelf suspense films with first-rate casts such as Suspicion (1941, with Fontaine and Cary Grant), a kind of full-length paranoiac joke of a thriller handled with grinning subtlety; Shadow of a Doubt (1942, with Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright), in which evil, in the form of a long lost uncle, creeps in on a small-town American family; Lifeboat (1944, with Tallulah Bankhead), a technical challenge in which the action was confined to a lifeboat at sea; the Freudian thriller Spellbound (1945, with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck and a Salvador Dali-designed dream sequence); Notorious (1946, with Bergman and Grant), a lushly realized tale of post-War double-crossing, both political and romantic; and Rope (1948, with James Stewart), his most audaciously conceived film, designed as one uninterrupted 81-minute shot.

Even as Hitchcock lent his image and black-humor predilections to a weekly TV anthology series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents without doing much work for it (1955-65; the theme, which became Hitchcock's personal theme music, was Funeral March of the Marionette by Gounod), most critics seem to agree that 5 of his 11 films from the 1950s were among his best: perhaps his most horrifying tale, Strangers on a Train (1951) in which a psychotic proposes an exchange of murders with a benign tennis pro then goes ahead with his side of the proposed bargain; Rear Window (1954, with Stewart and cool blonde Grace Kelly), in another constrained environment, arguably his best film; The Trouble with Harry (1956, with Shirley Maclaine), the blackest of comedies -- the trouble with Harry being that he is inconveniently dead; Vertigo (1958, with Stewart and cool blonde Kim Novak), a film of obsessions and nightmares, also a candidate for best Hitchcock film; and North by Northwest (1959, with Grant and cool blonde Eva Marie Saint), in which Hitchcock took the cross-country chase to its apotheosis, another arguable Hitchcock-best.

Psycho (1960), his first film of the new decade, has turned out to be his most famous for its terrifying shower attack, but the violence of the film made it atypical of Hitchcock's output. His last films showed flashes of interest (including memorable sequences in The Birds, 1963, and Marnie, 1964, both with cool blonde Tippi Hedren; Frenzy, 1972; and Family Plot, 1974), but his greatest work was behind him as he settled into retirement as the living legend.

More often analyzed than any other filmmaker, credited by some with exploring and manipulating on celluloid the deepest fears and anxieties of the human psyche, accused by others of making "Faberge eggs," beautiful on the outside but empty on the inside -- Hitchcock cared little for the intellectual speculation, saying only that his job was "to put the audience through it."



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