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A Beginner’s Guide to Hitchcock

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It’s a very big fall for fans of Alfred Hitchcock. First and foremost, Universal has released Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection , a fabulous 15-disc limited edition Blu-ray set featuring several of Hitch’s masterpieces (including Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, and North by Northwest) in gorgeous HD transfers, with copious bonus features. And while his work is available for fresh consumption, there are a pair of new biography treatments as well — on the small screen, we have HBO’s The Girl (with Toby Jones as a rather skeevy Hitch and Sienna Miller as ‘Tippi’ Hedrin), while next week brings the theatrical release of a marvelous new big-screen biopic, Hitchcock (focusing on the production of Psycho, with Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock, Helen Mirren as wife Alma, and Scarlett Johannson as Janet Leigh).

That’s a lot of Mr. Hitchcock to take in at once, but we’re here to help. If your knowledge of Hitch is confined to a shower scene and a flock of diving seagulls, you’re in luck; we’ve put together a Beginner’s Guide to Hitchcock, earmarking his major motifs, significant films, and relevant facts. Check it out after the jump.

The Master of Suspense

Because Hitchcock is best remembered these days (among casual moviegoers, at least) for Psycho and The Birds, there’s something of a misconception that he was a “horror” director. The importance and influence of those films — particularly the former, which inspired Halloween and thus the entire “slasher” horror style — cannot be overstated, but they were really the only items in his filmography that could be accurately classified as horror pictures. Hitch preferred suspense, which is a very different thing — and we can’t explain the split nearly as well as the man himself, who does so in the clip above.

Hitch’s trademark became his intricate, suspenseful set pieces, which were so important to the filmmaker that he would often work with his screenwriters to build stories around them; he’d have ideas for, say, a pursuit on Mount Rushmore and an attempted murder via crop dusting airplane, and then he and the writer would develop a narrative that could feature them (in that case, the writer was Ernest Lehman, and the film was North by Northwest). Because good old-fashioned suspense never goes out of style, the best of those sequence s— Grace Kelly’s visit to the murderous neighbor’s apartment in Rear Window, ‘Tippi’ Hedrin’s robbing of the safe in Marnie, the Albert Hall climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the bit with the fan belt and the handcuffs in Saboteur (all in the new Universal box set) — still hold up. He became the master of manipulating cinematic elements to create suspense, and thus enthrall the audience. “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano,” he famously said; Hitchcock’s single best scene finds him doing just that, standing in the lobby during Psycho’s shower scene, conducting their gasps and shrieks like an orchestral conductor.

The MacGuffin

Few of Hitchcock’s central ideas have entrenched themselves in the cinematic vocabulary like “the MacGuffin,” which was, simply put, the thing the plot was about so that the plot could be about something. The filmmaker wasn’t actually all that interested in the MacGuffin itself — it was something to be defined, so that the narrative could situate itself around it, and then it could be, basically, ignored. In Notorious, the MacGuffin is uranium; in The 39 Steps, it’s the formula for a military device; in North by Northwest, it’s a microfilm containing, vaguely enough, “government secrets”; in Psycho, it’s the stolen money. In his justly celebrated book-length interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock explained the origin of the peculiar term:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all!”

The Hitchcock Blonde

The primary concern of both of the new Hitchcock biopics is Hitchcock’s perhaps unhealthy preoccupation with his leading ladies, most of whom fit a very specific type: blonde hair, fair skin, and (at first, anyway) cold or indifferent to the opposite sex. “A woman like you could never get involved with any man, sane or insane,” Ingrid Bergman is told in Spellbound, though as the Hitchcock Blonde archetype developed, she became more complicated and interesting. Characters like Grace Kelly’s Frances Stevens in To Catch A Thief, Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in Psycho, and ‘Tippi’ Hedren’s Melanie Daniels in The Birds are headstrong, independent women who drive fast, take what they want, and make no apologies; also, they are often (particularly in the cases of Hedren in The Birds and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much) clearly much smarter than the men they’re with. The tawdry underbelly of Hitch’s interest in his actresses is given plenty of attention in Hitchcock and The Girl (particularly the latter, which pivots quickly from a thoughtful examination of sexual harassment to a sleazy gross-out), which is prompting something of an outcry among Hitch’s fans; some raise legitimate questions about the veracity of claims by Hedren and biographer Donald Spoto, while others seem mostly interested in victim-blaming and idolatry. It’s all he said/she said at this point, but whatever the truth may be, the filmmaker’s fascination with his blondes — picking out their clothes, selecting their hairstyles, etc. — informed and shaped his most personal (and these days, most acclaimed) film, Vertigo.

The Innocent Man

Another favorite Hitchcock narrative is that of the innocent man, wrongly accused of a crime, who takes flight to prove his innocence and (often) to fall into the arms of a woman who at first fears him, and then believes in him. The 39 Steps and Saboteur are early examples, their protagonists (respectively) accused of murder and framed for arson; North by Northwest, in which Cary Grant is mistaken for a CIA agent, remains the gold standard. It became such a favorite of the filmmaker that he was able to experiment with the motif. His wildly underrated 1956 film The Wrong Man, in which musician Henry Fonda is mistaken for a criminal, was based on a true story, and shot in a less baroque style, mostly on location (a style that predated by decades police procedurals like Law & Order). His 1955 film To Catch a Thief concerned a cat burglar (Cary Grant) accused of a string of robberies — but his past makes his innocence far more dubious, and Hitch keeps us from trusting him entirely. And 1972’s Frenzy toyed with audience sympathy even further by making the “innocent” man a complicated and rather unlikable character, only a recipient of our rooting interest when compared to the truly vile strangler committing the crimes our anti-hero is accused of.

The Voyeur

Hitchcock was a filmmaker so fully engaged with the act of filmmaking that the relationship between him and his audience frequently made its way into the films themselves. Voyeurism is often present in both his text and subtext — most notably in Rear Window (this author’s favorite of his works), in which wheelchair-bound photographer L.B. Jeffries becomes fascinated and then obsessed by the goings-on outside his apartment window, viewing, interpreting, and commenting upon the actions of his neighbors like a moviegoer in front of several screens. And then, of course, there is Psycho, whose famous shower sequence is preceded by a scene of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) watching Marion Crane undress through a peephole — a view that we in the audience are invited to share.

The Innovator

And about that shower sequence… It’s become one of the most famous and celebrated in all of cinema, though like most innovations, its countless imitators have blunted its initial impact to those who see it fresh today. But aside from the brutality of its violence (unusual for 1960), its combination of inventive camera angles and rapid-fire cuts — 90 in three minutes, utilizing 77 different setups — was astonishing in its virtuosity. But Hitchcock had always been visually innovative; witness his ingenious point-of-view shots in Spellbound, the reverse-zooms of Vertigo, a murder reflected in the lens of the victim’s fallen glasses in Strangers on a Train. He gets less credit for his experiments with sound, but they are just as impressive; though the unforgettable screeching violins amped up the terror considerably in Psycho, Hitchcock challenged himself by eschewing a musical score entirely for its follow-up The Birds, instead relying on painstakingly orchestrated bird sounds and other effects. In Marnie’s safe robbery sequence, Hitchcock takes a page from Riffifi and plays the scene in total silence, with our heroine attempting to sneak out of the office under the nose of a cleaning woman without making a sound. And he plays the aforementioned Albert Hall climax of the 1955 Man Who Knew Too Much without dialogue, only using the music of the orchestra as an assassination is falling into place. In fact, he was playing clever tricks with sound clear back in his first talkie, Blackmail, in which a character, paranoid that her knifing of a rapist will be discovered, keeps hearing the word “knife,” loudly and sharply, in a casual conversation.

The Adapter

Hitchcock’s reputation as a stylist is so firmly ensconced that it is easy to overlook his development of that style and, occasionally, his willingness to stifle it. He began working in the silent era in England, first showing a flair for suspense in the silent film The Lodger. He developed his style in terrific English thrillers like The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and the original Man Who Knew Too Much, but when he came to California in 1939, he took his time figuring out how to meld his English sensibility with the Hollywood machine. His first American film, Rebecca, feels much more like the other work of producer David O. Selznick than Hitch, and his early-’40s output ranged from courtroom dramas (The Paradine Case) to spy pictures (Saboteur) to even a romantic comedy ( Mr. and Mrs. Smith ). But over the course of that decade and the one that followed, his distinctive blend of Hollywood glamour, sophisticated suspense, and psychological subtext gelled, resulting in his most iconic works.

But Hitchcock wasn’t one to rest on his laurels, and as Hitchcock eloquently dramatizes, his itch to try something new was what led to Psycho — the idea that if “someone really good” took a crack at the critically reviled but immensely profitable low-budget horror genre, something special (and lucrative) could result. And if an inability to continue adapting marked his creative downfall later in the ’60s (with poorly received, “old fashioned” efforts like Topaz and Torn Curtain), it wasn’t for lack of trying — he famously attempted to make a first-person thriller called Kaleidoscope during that time, whose proposed hand-held camerawork and adult themes would have made it a film way ahead of its time.

The Director as Celebrity

In Hitchcock’s pre-auteur age, he was one of the few filmmakers who was not only a recognizable name to the general public, but was actually a marketable commodity — he would be just as prominently featured on his posters (not just in name, but often in visage) as the movie stars who appeared in them. How did this happen? Several reasons: clever marketing and the director’s willingness to “give good quote” in interviews was certainly one element, as well as studio publicity tales of his working methods and penchant for secrecy. And then there were the cameos. He reportedly made his first onscreen appearance, in 1927’s The Lodger, out of necessity; there weren’t enough extras for the scene. But figuring out where and when to make his cameo became a running joke for the filmmaker (and a challenge — in Lifeboat, for example, he couldn’t very well show up on a street or bus, so he instead appeared in a weight loss ad inside a newspaper on the titular vessel), and audiences came to enjoy looking out for Hitch. Their awareness of his physical presence only increased when the filmmaker began hosting Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955, his droll introductions (“Good eeeevening”) and wrap-ups solidifying his image as a mischievous dry wit. (Hitchcock cleverly uses this device in its own narrative.) And that recognition came in handy when Paramount attempted to torpedo the controversial Psycho with a lackluster marketing effort; Hitchcock hosted his own, wickedly funny trailer, and prominently featured himself in the marketing materials, insisting that audiences not enter the film late, and that they keep its considerable secrets to themselves.

The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray set is now available. The Girl is currently running on HBO. Hitchcock is out next Friday in limited release.