This week marks the standalone Blu-ray debut of Torn Curtain , one of the last of the Alfred Hitchcock films that were previously only available as part of the expensive Masterpiece Collection box set. Those films, ranging from black comedy to quiet mystery to all-out horror, show the wide range of genres that can fall into the overall (and often overused) classification of “Hitchcockian.” After the jump, we’ll take a look at a few classic and modern films that bear the earmark of Hitchcock’s profound influence.
French master Henri-Georges Clouzot based this 1955 thriller on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whom Hitch himself would adapt three years later for Vertigo. (Rumor has it that Hitch had his eye on this property, and Clouzot acquired the rights mere hours before he made his intentions known.) This moody, black-and-white psychological chiller is best remembered for a terrifying bathtub murder set piece; years later, when his Psycho was released, Hitch received a letter from an angry parent who said his daughter had refused to take baths after Diabolique and now refused to take showers after Psycho. His advice? “Send her to the dry cleaners.”
Director Michael Powell, half of the Powell-Pressburger team responsible for such classics as The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, released this grisly shocker the same year Hitch put out Psycho. The divergences from that point are remarkable: Psycho was a giant hit that confirmed its director’s status as a master suspense filmmaker, while Peeping Tom was resoundingly rejected as perverse and amoral, and its response greatly tarnished Powell’s filmmaking career. Much of this was cultural: Powell was a British filmmaker, and his native audience wasn’t quite ready for this potent mix of pop psychology and terror. But Peeping Tom has since been recognized as the classic it was, boasting a scorching style of its own while mirroring Hitchcock’s pet themes of voyeurism, obsession, and murder.
To this day, Charade is the single film that is most often incorrectly attributed to Hitchcock. After all, it was a sparkling, sophisticated, globetrotting romantic thriller, and it featured Cary Grant, one of Hitch’s favorite leading men (they collaborated on four pictures). But it was actually the work of producer/director Stanley Donen, better known for such musical comedy classics as Singin’ in the Rain and Damn Yankees! Yet he’s a pretty good Hitch-copycat, crafting a sleek, smart, and funny spy thriller that finds Grant in fine form opposite the lovely Audrey Hepburn.
Dressed to Kill
Frankly, the work of Brian De Palma could fill out this entire list; he’s the modern filmmaker most identified with the Master of Suspense, having paid direct tribute to Rear Window (in Body Double), Vertigo (in Obsession), and, in this 1980 thriller, Psycho — from the early shower scene to the first-act dispatching of ostensible lead Angie Dickinson to the reveal of a transvestite killer. So it’s not a terribly original picture, but it’s a brutally effective one, filled with De Palma’s signature aesthetic flourishes and high-energy style.
Roman Polanski’s story of an American couple abroad accidentally tumbling into a complicated and dangerous bit of international intrigue owes more than a little bit to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he actually shot twice — once in 1934, and again in 1956. The second time, he cast James Stewart in as his everyman protagonist; Polanski casts Harrison Ford as his, and believe it or not, the man who played Indiana Jones and Han Solo is utterly convincing as an ineffectual tourist who must, with great difficulty, become a man of action.
The Spanish Prisoner
Most would agree that Hitchcock’s greatest contribution to the vocabulary of storytelling was his coining of “the MacGuffin,” i.e., the inconsequential thing that a movie is about so a movie can be about something. (Here’s his fuller explanation for the term.) David Mamet’s wickedly enjoyable 1997 thriller The Spanish Prisoner features one of the most entertainingly vague MacGuffins in movie history: a valuable equation for corporate financial success known as “The Process.” The pursuit of said Process sets off a complex series of lies, cons, mistaken identities, and double-crosses for creator Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), a classic Hitchcock protagonist in the Jimmy Stewart mold.
Mission: Impossible II
Stylistically speaking, this 2000 sequel owes far less to Hitchcock than to the previous works of director John Woo, whose slo-mo wing-flapping-doves aesthetic was already veering wildly into self-parody. But screenwriter Robert Towne (who did an uncredited rewrite on Frantic, and whose Tequila Sunrise had a slightly Hitchcockian vibe) lifted the film’s narrative directly from Hitchcock’s 1946 classic Notorious, with Thandie Newton filling the Ingrid Bergman role of the troubled women sent back into the arms of the bad man only she can get to (Dougray Scott here, Claude Rains in the original), and Tom Cruise in the Cary Grant role of the man who loves her, yet sends her on that mission.
Tell No One
Writer/director Guillaume Canet adapts Harlan Coben’s novel — in which a grieving husband receives what appears to be an email from his dead wife, right around the time he is suspected for another, similar murder — with high wit and crackling style, expertly balancing a labyrinth plot, genuine suspense, and an “innocent man wrongly accused” narrative that Hitchcock would have been proud of.
Some of Hitch’s finest work took advantage of single locations to mine the psychological intensity of claustrophobia, from the urban apartments of Rope and Rear Window to the lifeboat of, erm, Lifeboat. That same spirit is found in Rodrigo Cortés’ 2011 thriller, in which an American contractor in Iraq wakes up to find himself trapped in a coffin, buried alive, with about 90 minutes of air. In a technical challenge that Hitchcock would have undoubtedly adored (after all, the daring craftsman devised Rope to appear free of edits, and wanted to make an experimental thriller told entirely with a subjective, handheld camera), Cortés stays inside that 2’ x 7’ box for the entirety of the picture. No prologues, no flashbacks, no cutaways, nothing but what is happening in each moment, which is then pushed in, pressed up, and squished like a vice.
Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) has developed a visual style all his own, but its debt to the freedom and energy of Hitchcock’s compositions is highlighted by his English-language debut, which is full of echoes of Hitch’s marvelous 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt. It’s not just that Park’s enigmatic Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shares the name of the murderous uncle played by Joseph Cotton in Doubt; both films also take place in seemingly idyllic, isolated communities, leaving us with the impression that quiet evil can lurk behind every door and around every corner. But from an emotional standpoint, Stoker is like an inverted Shadow. In that film, a young woman who loves her uncle unlocks his past and is repulsed. In this one, a young woman who loathes her uncle unlocks his past and responds with, well, a bit more moral ambiguity.