Hitchcock: The man, the myth, the legend

Jun 26, 2007 at 6:23 pm

Alfred Hitchcock is a director whose work demands repeated viewing. It’s a good thing, too: Only two years since their initial success with Alfred Hitchcock’s work, the Louisville Palace is doing another retrospective of the depraved genius.

In honor of the event, LEO wants to provide a primer on the man who made an entire generation scared to take a shower.

The Work

Hitch directed about 30 Hollywood films (and an equal number in the UK) as well as 17 episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” for television. He was nominated for six Oscars (five Best Directors, one Best Picture — absurdly, he lost every time). He has four films on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies. Unsurprisingly, he dominates its list of greatest thrillers.  

The Actresses
Hitchcock had an uncanny ability to find actresses with great talent but ephemeral careers. Ingrid Bergman’s initial stretch in Hollywood was brief — she premiered in the United States with “Casablanca” in 1942 and left for Italy in 1949 — but the bulk of that time was spent with Hitch. In 1945, he teamed her with Gregory Peck in “Spellbound,” a thriller steeped in psychoanalysis. A huge success, it led Hitch and Bergman to make two more movies (“Notorious” and “Under Capricorn”) before she was knocked up by Roberto Rossellini and skipped town.

In 1954, Hitchcock hooked up with another blonde, Grace Kelly, when she was still in her mid-20s. The result? Three masterpieces in “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.” Whereas Bergman’s roles were famously icy — despite her real life indiscretions, she screamed Nordic repression on screen — Kelly’s roles generally were more comedic.  

Kelly then left to become Princess Grace of Monaco. Hitchcock, despite being married to Alma Reville since 1926, was shaken by this second defection. He continued to work with talented blondes like Kim Novak and Janet Leigh, but never allowed himself to establish a long-term working relationship with any of them.
Probably because of these experiences, Hitch’s subsequent female characters found themselves in nasty scenarios. Many assume that 1963’s “The Birds,” about a headstrong young blonde who is tortured by nature for two hours, is his ultimate farewell to his two muses.

The Actors

Hitch worked with A-list male stars, but he showed little loyalty to them. Instead, he chose them according to the demands of the movie. Laurence Olivier was a creepy aristocrat in “Rebecca.” Cary Grant played wisecracking playboys in “To Catch a Thief” and “North By Northwest.” Henry Fonda was an everyman caught up in intrigue with “The Wrong Man.”
He worked with Jimmy Stewart on four classics, including “Vertigo” and “Rear Window.” They were demanding roles, calling for a combination of Grant’s wit, Fonda’s honesty and Stewart’s own signature irritable cynicism.

The Themes
Hitchcock was born in England to Victorian Catholic parents; it should come as no surprise that repression is a consistent theme in his films. In “Marnie,” “Psycho,” “Spellbound” and others, repressed feelings — sexual or otherwise — hack their way to the surface. Another very Freudian idea, the Oedipus Complex, frequently showed up.

He also had a taste for European thinkers on media and the arts. Voyeurism, a particularly helpful concept for discussing movies, is at the heart of “Rear Window.” As one friend said about the film, it reminded us that the modern man can’t love anything he hasn’t seen first on TV. In “Vertigo,” Hitch implies that modern men have been conditioned by advertisers to prefer idealized — and unattainable — women.

The Co-workers
Other than his wife (herself a writer), Hitch’s closest relationships were with his cinematographers. In England, he was closely associated with Jack Cox, who shot about a dozen films for him before Hitch left for Hollywood.
In the United States, his main partner was Robert Burks. This collaboration would eventually popularize most of the techniques that we now associate with thrillers (i.e. the so-called “Hitchcock Zoom” in “Vertigo”). They had a famously productive and varied relationship while alternating between stark Expressionist thrillers like “Dial M for Murder” and Technicolor feasts like “North By Northwest.”

Hitchcock worked with other greats. Salvador Dali provided the art direction for a sequence in “Spellbound.” The Flapper-era poet and critic Dorothy Parker helped punch-up the script for “Saboteur.” And he collaborated with the great suspense novelist Daphne Du Maurier on “The Birds,” “Jamaica Inn” and “Rebecca.”

The Skills
Perhaps above all else, Hitchcock was an innovator of film form. “Rope,” based on the Leopold and Loeb case, used clever editing and choreography to make it appear that the film was shot in one take. “Vertigo” used models and exotic camera angels to capture Stewart’s psychology. And “Psycho,” one of the most powerful challenges to the artistically restrictive moral codes enacted by the Hayes Office, not only kills its heroine halfway through, it was also the first movie to not let people come in after the beginning of the film.
Why was Hitch able to be so daring? It’s hard to say, but the fact that he was talented, egotistical and lucrative probably didn’t hurt.

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