2020 will mark the true centenary of Alfred Hitchcock's entrance into the British film industry, as a title card illustrator. But to honor a man who often compressed and distorted time in his films, we can celebrate the Hitchcock century now. Hitch is with us as much as when he was alive and active, crafting his whimsical celebrity as the master of the macabre. Now we see him in the round, and there are few reputations as secure.
He would savor the acclaim and the critical reassessment. By mid-career, Hitchcock was the most recognizable name among directors, and 'Hitchcockian' stood for expertise and originality in thrillers. A well-read moviegoer of 1955 would recognize a photo of DeMille or Preminger, but everyone knew Hitchcock. He made a cameo appearance in each of his films, and beginning in '55, he hosted a popular weekly TV series. The show, which ran for 8 years, was followed by short story anthologies, children's books, a monthly mystery magazine, and a fan club. I was a dues-paying member circa 1966-69.
It is likely that Hitch's celebrity and his droll, enigmatic pronouncements added to his box office but cost him with contemporary critics. To be sure, Rebecca (1940), his first American film, won him extravagant praise, but today it is one of his least representative films. Hitchcock fans respect its technical and stylistic elements, and there is a trio of stunning actresses (Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, Florence Bates), all three giving performances that would create career pathways in film. But I have never met a fan who placed Rebecca in his top five list. After Rebecca, Hitchcock made more personal choices of source material, and a condescending attitude toward the man and his chosen genre set in with many critics. In 1958, Time's reviewer labeled Vertigo 'another Hitchcock and bull story.' Dwight McDonald reviewed Psycho in Esquire, describing it as 'a reflection of a most unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind.'
Since Hitchcock's final film, Family Plot (1975), and his death five years later, there has been a growing critical consensus pointing to Hitchcock's mastery of every phase of direction, and his best films are now recognized for qualities that eluded many early critics, including humor, passion, and themes expressed across a group of features. Psycho, long since out-splattered by its gory imitators, is seen today as a jet-black comedy and a peerless example of manipulating an audience through film technique. And that humble Hitchcock and bull story? 2012's BFI Poll named Vertigo as the best motion picture of all time, bumping Citizen Kane from its decades-long run in the number one position.
We Hitchcock fans are living in a lucky time. A reasonably resourceful fan can acquire all 52 of his extant features (happily, only The Mountain Eagle of 1926 is considered lost.) Five seasons of his television series have been released on DVD. Critics, film historians and theorists have published a vast literature on the man and his films. I would not want to guess between Hitchcock and Elvis, as to whose bibliography holds more titles.
Hitchcock on VHS or disc gives one the luxury of visiting favorite films again and again, much as one rereads a favorite poet or novelist. When one is familiar with all the films, there is a realization that in Hitchcock, there was a technical mastery of cinema put to the service of highly charged narratives of instability and anxiety, all of this manipulated by a visual artist with an eye for composition. He had it all. In the rest of this piece I will describe some of the elements of production design in which Hitchcock set standards.
Hitchcock was a commercial artist before entering film, and his best work always displays a painter's vision. Individual frames from his films arrest the eye; in fact, before his early films were available to the lay public, they were known through the stills published in Francois Truffaut's groundbreaking Hitchcock (1966). Here you could see the close up of the screaming chorine in The Lodger (1926) or Joan Fontaine's face superimposed over a cliff top murder she is imagining in Suspicion (1941). The formal elements of blocking, light and shadow were so effectively used that the stills contained much of the power of the films themselves. Hitchcock's comment to Truffaut that 'the screen rectangle must be charged with emotion' is the distillation of his work as a visual artist, as well as a fine statement of principles for filmmakers everywhere.
Hitchcock's features abound with set pieces in which the basic grammar of film brings an audience to a pitch of anxiety. A short list would include the boy carrying the bomb in Sabotage (1936), political assassination in Foreign Correspondent (1940) and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, 1956), stalker and victim at the amusement park in Strangers on a Train (1951) James Stewart fending off his attacker with flash bulbs in Rear Window (1954), fatal attacks of dizziness in Vertigo (1958), and the defining action scenes in North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963), which, depending on your stage of Hitchcock awareness, are either too obvious to name or too classic to spoil with anticipation. Hitchcock's editing is unmistakable. A classic Hitchcock sequence conveys story and emotion through visual rhythm. The editing of a master, whether it is Griffith, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, or Hitchcock, unlocks the unique power of cinema.
Hitch brought off flamboyant tracking shots in two of his films. Young and Innocent (1937) has a crane shot that traverses a crowded ballroom to come up against a suspect’s squinting eyes. Hitchcock’s camera in Notorious (1946) cranes down into a crowded salon to reveal in extreme close-up what Ingrid Bergman is holding in her hand. Both shots were costly and time-consuming, but each supplies the crux of an episode in purely visual terms. A bit later in his career, Hitchcock experimented with extended takes. Rope (1948) consists of less than 10 separate shots, because it was filmed in maximum-length exposures, each shot taking nearly a reel of film. It survives as a good film, particularly for the sharp playing of Cedric Hardwicke and Constance Collier in the supporting cast. Hitchcock later disavowed his experiment with maximum length shots, because it removed the power of editing from his film.
Blackmail (1929) was not only Hitchcock’s first sound film, it was the first British talkie. Thus it is remarkable that in this film Hitchcock achieved the first expressionist use of sound in film. A girl who, unbeknownst to her family, has fought off an attacker with a knife, hears the word knife repeated through the haze of a mealtime conversation. Eventually the word is so loud in her ears that she breaks under the strain. The scene works beautifully. I have not found an earlier example in films to match it. Six years later, in The 39 Steps, there is a textbook example of shock editing when Hitchcock cuts from the startled face of a maid discovering a corpse to a train with a screaming whistle. The impact of close-up and sound gives the audience a delightful rabbit punch.
Before leaving the technical arts, one should note that Hitchcock labored over no film more than this release from the pre-digital, pre-CGI year of 1963. A film that showed mass bird attacks required every trick of optical printing that existed back then. The famous final shot, which is a composite of 32 separate exposures, is the most complex of Hitchcock’s career. The Birds has no score. Instead there is an unnerving soundtrack of bird calls, some recorded naturally and some filtered electronically, to produce the shrieks, murmurs, and jeers that signal the mood of the avian hordes.
A common theme in Hitchcock is chaos invading a stable environment. He brought this out, sometimes humorously, by having outrageous events occur at iconic settings. These included the British Museum (Blackmail), Albert Hall (The Man Who Knew Too Much), the Statue of Liberty and Radio City (Saboteur, 1942), the U.N. and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest). Family Plot depicts the kidnapping of a bishop from a cathedral, during services. An equally productive pattern in Hitchcock is the confined setting, with Lifeboat (1944) as the prototype. The creative challenge was to use the language of film in the smallest of sets to tell a suspenseful story. Other cramped narratives took place in the bachelors’ spread in Rope, the London flat in Dial M for Murder (1953), and the invalid’s apartment in Rear Window.
Hitchcock is the Master of Suspense, but his genre is better understood as romantic suspense. In most of his topflight films, there are two plot trajectories. Our protagonist, almost always a man, has the bottom drop out of his world. In the midst of his nightmare, he is paired with a female character, and their love story runs its course in parallel with the suspense plot. Their love will be tested by the jeopardy they are in, and they will be forced to team together to overcome it. This plot structure fits roughly two dozen Hitchcock classics, some better than others. It corresponds strongly with such films as The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. If one allows for a final, drastic turnabout, it fits Vertigo. This double-spun plot interested Hitchcock throughout his career. In his masterpieces, in such films as The 39 Steps, Notorious, and Rear Window, he wedded highly original suspense plots to romances that studied the various stages of courtship and commitment. One watches these rich films today, with their additional bounties of humor, shot composition, music, on down to the detail work of set decoration, lighting, ambient sound, and extra casting (always meticulous on a Hitchcock shoot), and one wonders why Hitch was so often dismissed as a skilled but superficial entertainer.
And there is still more to the man’s 55-year career. A comprehensive Hitchcockiana would include his legendary story conferences, his exact control of scoring, wardrobe, color, lighting; of the angle, length, and scope of shots; his mid-50s production team, including composer Bernard Herrmann; his excursions into melodrama, comedy, costume dramas, and wartime docudramas; his nearly infallible skill for casting his pictures; his witty publicity campaigns. Hitchcock’s take on life was expressed fully in the complex art form he embraced. Film buffs can count themselves lucky if, among Hitch’s 52 features, his ‘slices of cake’, as he called them, they have titles yet to sample.