Round about the time the centenary of cinema was being celebrated, there was a slew of documentaries about the history of film on TV, making me realise how little I knew about all the great films that have been made. So I read Donald Spoto’s Alfred Hitchcock biography, The Dark Side of Genius, as a way of starting to get to know a little bit more about movies, and duly set about trying to watch all of Hitchcock’s surviving films. That would have been about 1995, and it’s only this year that I managed to tick the last couple off the list — Stage Fright, from 1950, notable for including Hitchcock’s daughter in her movie debut, and Family Plot, from 1976, his last completed movie, notable for a naseau-inducing first-person camera shot as a car careens down a winding road in the LA mountains.
Hitchcock is one of the few directors whose oeuvre comprises its own mini-course in the history of cinema, as his career started in the days of silent films, survived the coming of sound and colour, and even embraced the threat of television. His filmmaking ended just as the blockbuster movie came along (Jaws, Star Wars), which is where my cinema-going started, and the only significant advance since those days, which Hitch never lived to see, is digital effects. (Hitchcock would have loved digital actors. For him, making a movie was all in the planning, and having to actually get real people to perform the shots he’d already constructed in his head was the boring bit.) He even made a 3D film.
Hitchcock survived the changes in cinema because he not only adapted, but worked to make the new technological advances part of his artistic repertoire, which is another reason you can use his films to learn about the history of the medium. In the silent days, he went to Germany to work with the masters of Expressionist cinema. And although his visual style is most evident in his silent films such as The Lodger (1927, the essential Hitchcock silent), he was still using expressionist tricks in his later films, such as Shadow of a Doubt (1943): when the train bringing the villainous Uncle Charlie to small-town Santa Rosa pulls in, it is belching black smoke, but when we next see the train, near the end of the film, it’s just a normal puff of grey.
With sound, the famous scene is in Blackmail (1929), where the guilt-ridden Anny Ondra (who has stabbed and killed a man who assaulted her) blanks out all conversation but an increasingly shrill repetition of the word “knife” (it’s a breakfast scene, and the reference is to a bread-knife), and the audience hears the effect with her. The interesting point here is that Blackmail was made in both sound and silent versions. Hitch knew that each technological advance merely added a new layer to the techniques he already had — so, silent Blackmail could work purely on a visual level, but sound Blackmail could work with added sound-tricks, too. The next advance, colour, was hardly the potential career-breaker sound was, but Hitchcock still thought about how to use it. In Vertigo (1958), for instance, when we first see Kim Novak’s character, it is in Ernie’s, a restaurant with deep red walls and at which all the other diners are wearing drab colours. Novak wears a vivd green, which sets her out as an island of visual restfulness. You can’t help but notice her, which is of course what Hitchcock wants.
Amongst all this, there were various other tricks Hitchcock used as he experimented with the medium. Rope (1948), his first colour film, was filmed in a series of long takes — as long as the film technology of the day would allow — with the necessary cuts being concealed, for instance, by people walking in front of the camera. Then there were long tracking shots, as in Notorious (1946), where the camera starts high up near the ceiling of a large entrance hall and slowly moves down to get a close up of the key Ingrid Bergman is nervously clutching in her hand. (There’s a similar long zoom in the much earlier Young and Innocent (1937), centring in on the twitching eye of a drummer in a band — that twitch being the vital clue that reveals him to be the murderer.) Nowadays, such experimentation often looks a bit clunky and obvious — rather too studied, it often breaks into the storytelling — and aside from an academic interest, that’s not the reason to watch Hitchcock’s films. When you watch a film, you want to watch a story that means something.
Throughout his oeuvre, Hitchcock returned again and again to certain emotional themes, and it’s when he uses the weapons in his artistic arsenal to tell a story, rather than just impress, that he’s most successful. That’s why I’ve never really liked North by Northwest (1959), which is the film that most often gets mentioned in association with his name (aside from Psycho — I can’t believe I almost forgot Psycho), but which is really nothing more than a series of cinematic wow-factor moments strung together by a Maguffin-driven plot. (The term Maguffin is, of course, Hitchcock’s own, for the whatever-it-is thing that everyone’s searching for and which sets a plot in motion. But Hitchcock coining it is no excuse for making a film with no emotional content in it at all.)
But those emotional themes — they’re really quite strange when you start to isolate them. And once you do, you find them popping up in film after film after film. The most obvious one is the man accused of something he hasn’t done. The further you go into his career, the more you find Hitchcock working at making this factually innocent man nevertheless feel the guilt of what he hasn’t done, to almost extreme levels. The high point is in Vertigo — my second favourite Hitchcock movie — in which Jimmy Stewart, caught in the midst of plot convolutions I won’t even begin to untangle, is all but psychologically destroyed because of the guilt he feels for a murder that he didn’t even commit. (And, interestingly, considering the usual rules of Hollywood morality, a murder for which the murderer escapes entirely scot-free.) But this is also a film in which guilt is tied up inextricably with another Hitchcock theme that has a weird resonance with the man’s own career as a director — the obsessive need to mould, manipulate and coerce a woman (often a blonde one) into doing something against her will, and usually something immoral. In Vertigo, poor Kim Novak’s character is manipulated in this way by not one but two men. One uses her to commit and conceal a murder, the other tries to turn her into the image of a woman he once loved, regardless of her own feelings on the matter. And the weirdest thing about this theme is how much it’s tied up with the men’s love for the woman they’re manhandling. It’s messy, rather Freudian (Hitchcock was an early adopter of psychoanalysis, and in one film employed Salvador Dali as designer on an important dream-sequence), and often quite nasty, when you take a step back and look at just what’s going on in front of you. But there’s nevertheless a lot about it that rings true, in a rather dark, all-too-human kind of way.
Another theme, a sort of flip-side variation on this, is the confrontation (and, potentially, corruption) of innocence (often in the form of a young female) by evil (in the form of a murderous male). This is something I like in David Lynch’s films, too. My favourite Hitchcock film of all time is Shadow of a Doubt (also Hitch’s own favourite), and this is pure innocence-confronts-evil. Shadow of a Doubt‘s setting is like the perfect cure for the dark world of film noir: it’s cosy small-town America (Santa Rosa, CA), where the cops who help you cross the road know your name, and everyone is happily filed away into their family home each night. Into this un-noir world comes a figure straight out of film noir, Uncle Charlie, who makes his living wooing and murdering rich widows. But such activities are temporarily on hold because the police are on his trail, so he beds down for a while with the family of his oblivious sister, whose daughter (also called Charlie), has a weird affinity for her namesake uncle. When she starts to suspect what he’s done, as she inevitably does, her affinity gives her a glimpse into a dark, nasty world unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. The moment when Uncle Charlie lets loose and reveals just what he thinks of the human race is one of the most electric scenes in all of Hitchcock’s films — made effective not so much by its content, but by its contrast with the innocent world surrounding it.
Hitchcock had a rather schoolboyish sense of humour, which could extend from silly jokes (such as, purportedly, framing a shot of the gay Ivor Novello so a flower seemed to be sprouting from his head), to rather nastier ones. Among the “rather nastier” is, for instance, his insistence on filming take after take of Kim Novak falling into San Francisco bay for Vertigo, and putting an unprotected Tippi Hedren into a room full of live, panicking birds (for The Birds) for so long that she had a nervous breakdown. This extended to off-screen practical jokes, too. Apparently, he once dared a member of his crew to spend a night in the studio, alone, chained to one of the heavy camera rigs. Just before turning off the lights for the night, Hitch sidled up to the man and gave him a little flask of whiskey or brandy to see him through the night. But this supposedly friendly gesture was just a further turn of the screw — the drink was laced with a powerful laxative. Hitchcock’s sense of humour also involved playing tricks on his audience. I mentioned at the start of this entry the (overlong) scene in Family Plot where a zigzagging car going down a mountain made me feel distinctly nauseous — and this was just on a TV screen, God knows how cinema audiences felt! But a dark sense of humour, I think, is one of the things that keeps his works from seeming dated.
Having watched all those Hitchcock films (a clean run from 1931’s The Skin Game, but excluding the war-propaganda films) I’ve kept five Hitchcock DVDs on my shelves. I’ve already mentioned Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo, my absolute favourites. I’ve also got Rear Window (1954), which is a bit of a gimmick film, the whole thing being shot in an (invented) courtyard surrounded by flats, but a good thriller all the same. The remaining ones are Hitch’s two major horror films, Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). Both are still shocking today. Psycho, with its fool-the-audience trick of killing off what had seemed to be its major character (Janet Leigh) halfway through; and The Birds with its bleak, apocalyptic, non-ending of an ending. Both films perhaps represent the point where Hitchcock’s dark sense of humour threatened to tip over into something really disturbing. The sense of humour in The Birds isn’t obvious at all, as the film is just so bleak, but recently seeing this cartoon, by Charles Addams (who, I think, Hitchcock must have liked — enough to borrow the Addams’ family mansion for Norman Bates’ home, at any rate), made me wonder if it wasn’t the film’s true origin: