Active Essentials: Alfred Hitchcock
Scott McKenzie is the Man Who Knows Too Much about the master of suspense
With 53 directorial efforts in a career spanning six decades, each showcasing his talents and ability to write the rules of cinema as the art form itself was evolving (not to mention the obligatory cameo appearances), it’s difficult to know where to start. Every fan has their favourite Hitchcock films, so here are—in my opinion and in chronological order—the five films that are not to be missed for a newcomer.
Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel of the same name, Rebecca tells the story of an unnamed young lady (Joan Fontaine) who marries a wealthy widower, Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier), while on holiday. Upon their return to his mansion, Manderley, it soon becomes clear that she is playing second fiddle to Max’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. She falls foul of the ruthlessly loyal house staff led by the sinister Mrs. Danvers, who tries to orchestrate her downfall.
The performances of all the characters are compelling, especially Judith Anderson as the scheming Mrs. Danvers. Hitchcock’s attitude towards his female leads is apparent in Fontaine’s character—he told her that everyone on set hated her to get a realistic timid and scared performance out of her.
Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film following his move to America and the first of the films he made with the notoriously difficult producer David O. Selznick. It was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, but the gong went to Selznick and the only Oscar he received was an honorary award in 1968.
The UK region two release of Rebecca is one part of the rather odd collection of the four Hitchcock DVDs (also including Notorious, Spellbound and The Paradine Case) released by Pearson Television International in 2000. All four titles include the same features—A Conversation with Hitchcock, An Interview with Kim Newman, The Real Me – (The Thin One) featurette, Extracts from Francois Truffaut’s book 'Hitchcock' and plenty of trivia tidbits, some focusing on the film itself, some on Hitchcock in general. All in all, the features on these discs are a bit half-hearted. The out-of-print Criterion edition is the most comprehensive release of Rebecca on DVD, including a commentary by Leonard J. Leff, author of ‘Hitchcock and Selznick’ and three hours of radio adaptations of the novel.
Immediately after his contract with David O. Selznick ended, Hitchock made Rope, the first of two experimental films he made in the ‘40s, using very long takes edited together to give the appearance of a whole film in one take.
The film opens with two young men (John Dall and Farley Granger) murdering one of their friends for the philosophical experience of killing someone. They hide the body in a chest and host a party in their apartment with the chest as a central piece of furniture, but among their guests is an old school teacher (James Stewart) who begins to suspect them.
Rope is essentially an 80-minute stage play captured on film, with a camera following the action, directing the audience’s attention. Of all of Hitchcock’s films, Rope divides opinion more than any other—is it an experimental masterpiece or a load of arty nonsense? The debate will continue forever and even though Hitchcock himself publicly regretted using the one-shot technique, there is a lot to enjoy in the way the camera moves around with the characters, threatening to reveal the body at any moment. Its inclusion in the list represents the more oddball side of Hitchcock’s portfolio as it certainly rewards repeated viewings more than Under Capricorn or the comedic experiment The Trouble With Harry.
The region two and region one releases are both part of the ‘Hitchcock Collection’ that is re-released every few years. The main feature on most discs in this collection is a comprehensive documentary, taking in all the principal collaborators (who are still alive), and Hitchcock’s daughter Pat who always adds a more personal edge to the proceedings.
James Stewart is a troubled private detective hired to follow the wife of a man who has suspicions that she (Kim Novak) may try to kill herself. In the process of his investigation, he falls in love with his subject and finds himself in an intriguing plot of twists and turns.
I didn’t want to give too much away in my summary of Vertigo as you really have to see it to believe it. Some critics argue that this is the closest you will get to a glimpse inside the mind of the man behind the camera, addressing his personal fears and his penchant for blondes, while others claim that this is Hitchcock spoofing himself. Either way this is Hitchcock’s most emotionally complex film and the usual measures of suspense and intrigue do not suffer as a result. Vertigo also serves the San Francisco tourist board well, showcasing the landmarks in beautiful Technicolor.
Even if you haven’t seen Vertigo, chances are you’ve seen the films that have been influenced by it. You know the shot in Jaws where Brody realises there’s a shark in the water and the background stretches away from the camera? That’s Hitchcock’s ‘Dolly Shot’, which was created by zooming in while pulling the camera back and it’s as effective now as it was in 1958.
The DVD release of Vertigo is also part of the ‘Hitchcock Collection’ and is obviously the jewel in the crown as it has been given the most loving restoration work, particularly the picture quality. The picture quality on all of the discs in the collection is very high, and considering the age of the titles and the fact that they do contain scratches and artefacts, it’s hard to wonder how the inevitable HD releases could provide a significant improvement. That last sentence may come back to haunt this reviewer so we’ll move along quickly. Vertigo is the only release in the collection with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack—all of the other discs have mono tracks, even his later films—which is an improvement over the other titles even though this film is not from an era when the use of directional sound was at the forefront of a director’s mind.
North by Northwest (1959)
A common theme of Hitchcock films is that of an everyman who must fight for his life in a deadly case of mistaken identity. North by Northwest is a perfect example of this, and given its light-hearted tone and linear storyline probably the best film to start with if you’re new to the director.
Cary Grant is a womanizing advertising executive whose only worry in the world is his nagging mother—that is until he is mistaken for a spy and before he knows it, the bad guys are after him and he has to find out why. The 136 minute runtime flies by in a fast-paced mix of famous set pieces, from the crop duster attack to the final showdown on Mount Rushmore. Throw in Eva Marie Saint as the femme fatale and James Mason as the camp villain and you’ve got one of the most accomplished adventure films of all time. In every scene we are compelled to consider what we would do in a similar situation, one of the major reasons why Hitchcock’s film have such an impact on so many people.
The identical region one and region two Warner releases of North by Northwest employ the same structure as the ‘Hitchcock Collection’ (to which this does not belong) by having a retrospective documentary as the centrepiece and the usual trailers and TV spots. There is a commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman which is revealing at times, but he does leave quite long gaps and has a tendency to lapse into the “look at that” school of commentary. A major highlight is the audio-only track so you can appreciate Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful score in all its Dolby Digital 5.1 glory.
Janet Leigh plays a young real estate secretary who steals $40,000 from her employer and makes a run for it. She then takes refuge in the out-of-the-way Bates Motel and the rest is movie history. In an incredible piece of misdirection, Hitchcock kills off his heroine halfway through the film. So now we focus on the trail of the $40,000 she has stolen. Don’t we?
A plot device regularly used by Hitchcock is an object or person that he christened the ‘McGuffin’. What does that mean? The ‘McGuffin’ is something that keeps the story moving along but in reality is irrelevant to the meaning of the story. In the case of Psycho, the $40,000 stolen by Janet Leigh is what makes her go on the run and end up at the Bates Motel but the film is actually a story about Norman Bates and his relationship with his mother. The briefcase in Pulp Fiction and the silver box in Ronin are modern-day examples of the ‘McGuffin’.
The most famous and influential scene is undoubtedly the murder of Janet Leigh’s character in the shower. This theme is echoed in countless teen slasher movies but the true work of genius is the editing. Hitchcock uses shorter and shorter cuts as the scene progresses, building the crescendo until the victim’s body is lying dead in the bath with her blood trickling down the plug hole, followed by a graphical match that will be familiar to fans of The Usual Suspects.
The ‘Hitchcock Collection’ release was very light on extras and has been improved upon with a re-release in time for its 45th anniversary in 2005. The additional inclusion of ‘The Hitchcock Legacy’ rounds out the package a little better, although for the completists out there this release won’t look as good on your shelf as it will clash with the colour coding on the spines of the other titles in the collection.
Here are another five titles that are not to be missed:
The Lady Vanishes (1938) is a stronger film from the early British era, but Sabotage is an important film because it is the one time where Hitchcock breaks his own rules. Without trying giving away the outcome of the big set-piece, I’ll warn you that for once Hitchcock delivers what he threatens.
Strangers On A Train (1951)
A compelling and accomplished film, Strangers On A Train represents the maturation of Hitchcock with the familiar intrigue and set pieces that would become his trademark.
Rear Window (1954)
A huge set full of different characters, James Stewart sitting at his window unable to move and did that man over there just kill his wife? Text book Hitchcock.
The Birds (1963)
Probably the closest Hitchcock came to making a pure horror film. Flocks of birds attack a small coastal town without warning. Everyone has their own theory—mine is that the birds represent Jessica Tandy’s emotional state, but what do I know?
Hitchcock returned to London towards the end of his career and intentionally pushed the violence in his films to new levels. As his only film to be rated ‘18’ in the UK, there are many moments of black comedy. How many other directors could find opportunities for slapstick between the bad guy and the body of the woman he raped and murdered only minutes earlier?
Editorial by Scott McKenzie
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