Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most interesting and innovative filmmakers in the history of cinema. He directed over fifty feature films spanning six decades. He made silent films in the 1920s and early talkies in the 1930s in England. Then he came to America, where he produced some amazing work from 1940 into the 1970s.

Hitchcock probably did more than any other director to shape modern cinema. His camera work caused the viewer to identify with the character's gaze, to engage in a form of voyeurism. He framed shots to manipulate the feelings in the viewer and maximize anxiety, fear, and empathy for the characters. His films often feature the ordinary man in an extra-ordinary situation. Often he featured a male fugitive on the run with an attractive female love interest. There are innovative depictions of violence, murder, and crime, combined with elements of mystery and complex psychological examinations of the characters. There are strong sexual undertones in his films.

Hitchcock's heroines tend to be lovely, cool blondes  who seem proper at first, but when aroused by passion or danger, respond in a more sensual and even sometimes criminal way. The best known example of this is in Psycho (1960) where Janet Leigh's character steals $40,000, but then after deciding to return it, is murdered by a reclusive psychopath. 

Hitchcock always planned out his films in a very exact way, creating a tight script and having story boards made for every shot. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates who lives and runs the Bates Motel. He lives there with his elderly mother in a house that sits on a hill above the motel. In the film the house is modeled after the painting The House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper. Norman seems like a nice, normal, harmless person when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) arrives, but after a lengthy conversation with him in the office of the motel, it is clear that he is disturbed.

This leads to one of the most famous and terrifying sequences in cinematic history - the famous shower scene. The murder of Janet Leigh's character is the film's pivotal scene. It runs for 3 minutes and includes 77 camera angles and 50 cuts. Most of the shots are extreme close-ups, except for medium shots at the beginning and end of the sequence. Hitchcock described this subjective technique as transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience. The early part of the scene is put to the dramatic music of Bernard Herrmann that consists of screeching violins, violas, and cellos. 

The scene ends with a medium shot of Janet Leigh sliding down against the tiles with the shower still running. The music has stopped now and the only sound is the running water of the shower. Next a close-up of Janet Leigh's hand grabs the shower curtain and then cuts to the top of the curtain where the hooks are being torn from the rod. The camera moves from her leg and follows the blood into a stream that flows into the drain. The camera moves into the black hole of the drain and dissolves to an ultra close-up of Janet Leigh's eye. The camera slowly pulls back revealing her dead face pressed against the floor. It then moves to the money wrapped in the newspaper lying on the table, and then out the window to the house on the hill, and we hear Norman Bates scream and are led to believe that his mother has committed the murder. 

In the end, we find that there is another side to Norman Bates and that he is suffering from a severe mental illness because of traumatic experiences early in his life with his mother. Psycho is the ultimate horror film, but also combines innovative camera work shot in black and white, with a psychological character study to create a work of cinematic art. 

The year before in 1959, Hitchcock released North by Northwest with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau. It is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the US by agents of a mysterious organization who want to stop his interference in their plans to smuggle microfilm out of the country. Even though it has elements of mystery and darkness, it also contains light-hearted humor especially in the earlier scenes with the wise-cracking Grant and Saint. It is filmed in wide screen color and has several amazing cinematic sequences. There is one incredible shot taken from the top of the UN looking down at at the plaza as Grant flees. There is also a scene in a flat Iowa cornfield where Grant is menaced by a small airplane. The final sequence takes place at Mount Rushmore and includes a chase scene on the stone faces of the ex-Presidents. North by Northwest is a film about the shifting nature of reality and identity. After it is clear that Grant and Saint are going to hook up, Hitchcock ends the film with a train passing into a tunnel - a bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting his mischievous sense of humor.

Vertigo (1958) starred Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak and is about a former police investigator suffering from acrophobia or an extreme fear of heights. Stewart's character develops an obsession with Novak the wife of a friend who he is following. The film ends in tragedy, after a complex plot of deception, changing identity, suicide, and murder. Vertigo is also shot in color and again has many striking sequences filmed in San Francisco including one at the bell tower of the Mission of San Juan Bautista and one by the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Wrong Man (1957) stars Henry Fonda and Vera Miles and is based on a true story of an innocent man charged for a crime he did not commit. After a long process his innocence is proven but at the expense of his wife's mental breakdown and the extreme stress they go through. It is told in a straight-forward way and is shot in stark black and white and has a film-noir quality.

Rear Window came out in 1954, with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, and is about a photographer who watches his neighbors while he is recuperating from a broken leg. He is confined in a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village apartment, whose rear window looks out onto a small courtyard and several other apartments. During a summer heat wave, he watches his neighbors that include a young female dancer, a lonely woman, a songwriter, several married couples, and a salesman with a bedridden wife. At a certain point Stewart's character Jeff becomes convinced that the salesman played by Raymond Burr has murdered his wife. Rear Window is a voyeuristic film where we all become Peeping Toms. Hitchcock turns the viewer of the film into a spectator who takes pleasure in watching alongside the characters in the film.

Strangers on a Train (1951) was based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and is about two men who meet on a train and speculate on removing people who are causing them difficulty. The problem is one man, Guy (Farley Granger) thinks they are only kidding, while the other Bruno (Robert Walker) takes the discussion seriously. Bruno follows Guy's wife Miriam and kills her in an amazing sequence in an amusement park. Bruno now expects Granger to kill his father as in his mind they had struck a bargain, but Guy thinks the whole thing is crazy and has to go through a process of proving his own innocence. Strangers on a Train explores the doppelganger theme as Bruno embodies Guy's dark desire to kill Miriam, a real-life manifestation of Guy's wish-fullfillment fantasy.

Notorious (1946) starred Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and features a plot about espionage where Claude Rains is an ex-Nazi. Grant has to save Bergman from him and the film becomes a passionate love story and includes great close-ups of the two stars embracing and kissing. It also contains one of Hitchcock's most famous shots - it starts wide and high, on a second floor balcony overlooking the great hall of a mansion and slowly tracks down and in on Bergman, finally ending with a tight close-up of a key tucked in her hand. Notorious is a dark, passionate, and beautiful film.

Spellbound (1945) explored psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Ingrid Bergman plays a doctor who falls in love with Gregory Peck who also is a doctor but has amnesia. She is trying to help him by unlocking the secrets of his repressed past.

As stated earlier, Hitchcock made over 50 films and it would be impossible to cover them all here, but some other interesting ones are The Lodger (1926), Blackmail (1929), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), The Birds (1963), and Frenzy (1972).

Alfred Hitchcock produced a great body of work that was both commercially successful and artistically interesting. He had an innovative and strong visual style that enhanced the subjects and themes of his films. In the end, he produced a body of cinematic art that revealed and commented on the psychology of our culture, while entertaining us with stories of crime and suspense.

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