Sunday, August 13, 2006

Happy Birthday, Hitch

Alfred Hitchcock, the unsurpassed Master of Suspense, would have turned 107 today. A director and producer of more than 50 films, his career began in the 1920s with silent motion pictures and culminated with Family Plot in 1976.

Born in England, Hitchcock came to the United States in the late 1930s. His signature was the use of fear and ambiguity to thrill his audiences. Unlike directors of today who claim to revere him, Hitchcock declined to use graphic violence in his films, preferring the power of suggestion. You think you see Mother Bates stabbing Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho. Actually, you see the knife, you see Leigh screaming, you see the shower curtain being pulled off the rod (one ring at a time) and you see (black and white) blood circling the drain. The jump cuts and shrieking violins distract you into thinking that you’ve seen more than you actually have. And, no, I’m not going to reveal anything about Mother Bates. If you don’t know what I mean, rent the movie tonight. Psycho was remade by Gus Van Sant in 1998.

The list of classic Hitchcock films includes North by Northwest (featuring the climax atop Mount Rushmore), Rear Window, The Birds, Strangers on a Train (an early draft of the screenplay for that film was written by Raymond Chandler, who did not get along with Hitchcock), and Vertigo.

Hitchcock was famously quoted as saying that actors “are cattle.” He later clarified that statement, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, saying that what he meant was, they “should be treated like cattle.” While it’s true that Academy Award-winning performances did not come from his films, I find that attribution hard to take seriously. After all, some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, and James Stewart worked with Hitchcock again and again. All three were certainly well beyond needing to work with a director they did not respect.

Hitchcock was also widely known for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which ran for 10 years starting in 1955. He was among the first film directors to understand the potential power of television. It also enhanced his personal celebrity, as Hitchcock introduced each episode of the series in his trademark black suit, white shirt, and black tie. His voice, while thick and easy to parody, nevertheless boasted a flawless diction. A sound clip of Hitchcock’s voice, taken from an album promotion, can be found here (scroll down to the bottom of the page). And here is a clip of his TV theme, “Funeral March of a Marionette,” by Charles-Francois Gounod. Also during the ’50s, he became associated with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which is published monthly to this day, offering some of the finest mystery short stories anywhere.

Hitchcock frequently made cameo appearances in his own films, usually in the first reel (it didn’t take him long to realize that audiences were looking for him so intently, they weren’t paying full attention to the stories he was trying to tell). My personal favorite cameo is in Psycho, in which the director can be spotted through Janet Leigh’s office window, inexplicably wearing a cowboy hat.

Hitchcock’s contributions to film technique are still widely studied and used. If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then there can be no higher compliment than Mel Brooks’ 1977 tribute to Hitchcock, High Anxiety (which The Master reportedly loved). Many Hitchcock films and sequences are referenced in High Anxiety, the most memorable being a shot-by-shot re-creation of the Psycho scene, in which Brooks is attacked in his shower with a rolled-up newspaper wielded by a young Barry Levinson.

Hitchcock died in April 1980.

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