During lockdown, many of us are visiting classic movies for the first time. In this article I look at the legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the most celebrated and innovative film directors of all time and a filmmaker I’ve admired for many years.
Born in London in 1899, Hitchcock started work as a title card designer in the blossoming movie industry, before working his way up to director.
His British movies showed early promise in his experimentation and mastery of the cinematic form. They also show some of the recurring themes he would explore throughout his career.
He directed the first “talkie” in Britain. His film Blackmail was made as a silent film, but as the technology to record and synchronise sound had taken a leap forward, he went back and recorded sound and added it to the film.
Just watch the “knife” scene to see how we was already pushing the boundaries of new technology to delve into Alice’s state of mind, as she reels from having had to kill her attacker with a knife the previous evening:
Hitchcock moved to the US in 1939 and had early success with Rebecca which won the Best Picture Oscar.
Throughout the next three decades, his films starred some of the biggest actors in the business and pushed the boundaries of technology – experimenting with camera moves and long takes (Rope, Under Capricorn).
His use of point of view (Rear Window), creating new visual language (the dolly zoom in Vertigo), encouraging music to enhance the experience (North by Northwest, Vertigo), or removing music altogether (The Birds).
He is also known for audacious narrative twists (Stranger on a Train, Vertigo, Psycho). Many credit Vertigo as a top tier psychological thriller, and Psycho as the first mainstream horror/slasher movie.
Some of his films focus on the idea of a man on the run from authority (The 39 Steps, The Wrong Man, North by Northwest), or include an ice-cold blonde (Vertigo, The Birds, Marnie).
Loved and lauded by the French New Wave directors, especially Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock became as well known as a director as some of his actors – most notably through his mystery TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and his many cameo appearances in his own films.
Hitchcock pre-visualised his films in advance with storyboards and filmed only what he needed, with very little “coverage”. He seldom looked through the camera viewfinder as he had already planned everything.
This almost obsessive approach led to controversy when he was “quoted” as saying that actors were simply cattle, and of course the experiences of Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds are eye-watering.
Hitchcock’s final films varied in quality, but still had flashes of technical wizardry and suspense – the kitchen attack in Torn Curtain, the overhead shot in Topaz, the early reveal of the killer and subject matter in Frenzy and the sly wit of Family Plot.
Hitchcock was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 1968, never having won an Oscar as a director. He also received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement award in 1979.
Hitchcock died in 1980, leaving a wealth of movies to admire and an adjective that many thriller filmmakers aspire to: “Hitchcockian”.
WHERE TO START?
What follows is a list of some of Hitchcock’s films. Any list is purely subjective though, so this isn’t a top list, or a ranked list, just a few that I think are worthy of your time.
Hitchcock covered a range of genres across 50 films, so jump in and see what inspires you.
The 39 Steps (1935)
John Buchan’s “man on the run” thriller with Robert Donat framed for murder and escaping London to the Scottish Highlands. And for at least part of the pursuit he is handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll.
This gothic thriller stars Joan Fontaine as a young woman who marries Laurence Olivier, only to discover that he is obsessed with his first wife.
Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Joel McCrea is a reporter uncovering a conspiracy at the heart of the government at the dawn of WW2.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Teresa Wright is a young woman in small town America who begins to suspect that her uncle is a dangerous serial killer.
Cary Grant is a spy trying to uncover secrets from Nazi Claude Rains, and falling for his protege, Ingrid Bergman.
Inspired by a real-life murder, two friends kill a third for fun before hiding his body in a chest then inviting his family around for dinner. Filmed to appear as one continuous take.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Two strangers meet on a train. They both have people they hate. One suggests a solution: they commit murders for each other. Criss cross.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Based on a classic play, Ray Milland plots to kill his wife (Grace Kelly) but when it all goes wrong, he must cover it up. Filmed in 3D.
Rear Window (1954)
A recuperating news photographer (James Stewart) is stuck in his apartment, paying far too much attention to his many neighbours across the road, when he begins to suspect one of them is a murderer.
An ex-cop with a fear of heights takes on a private case for a friend and finds himself falling for the woman he is following.
North by Northwest (1959)
An advertising executive (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a spy and ends up being chased across America by the villains AND the cops.
A young woman (Janet Leigh) embezzles money from her boss and goes on the run. She stays overnight at the remote Bates Hotel just off the highway. But something horrific is about to happen.
The Birds (1963)
Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor are the couple in a quiet Californian town dealing with the unexplained wave upon wave of violent attacks by birds.
Tippi Hedren is the troubled compulsive thief at the heart of this psychodrama, co-starring Sean Connery.
A brutal killer is attacking women in London. An innocent man is jailed. A policeman is trying to catch the killer before more deaths happen.
Truffaut’s book HITCHCOCK is freely available in various formats, and many Hitchcock films are available on physical release or digital download.