(1899 - 1990)
Three Key Films: Rebecca (1940), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)
Underrated: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) The only film Hitchcock ever remade (officially, that is, since he certainly re-imagined The 39 Steps as North by Northwest), one would be forgiven for assuming that this first go around must not have been much of a success. If it had been a triumph, then why would Hitch have rolled it back out 20 years later, rewriting key sequences and drastically expanding the plot (and runtime)? But, the surprising thing is that this first version is a crackling thriller, and is every bit as interesting as the other films from this period (though it also suffers from many of the same limitations). Though not necessarily a wholly successful picture, the first Man Who Knew Too Much still features a few undeniably bravura set pieces. The unforgettable climax of the film—the attempted assassination during a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall—demonstrates every facet of Hitchcock’s genius at roiling an audience up to a frenzy of anticipation. Just before the bullet is fired, the screen dissolves into fog. We begin to lose our focus as well. Where is the shooter? Where are we in relation to the impending violence? Will the bullet find its mark? Then, suddenly, a scream.
Unforgettable: The Bus Explosion, Sabotage (1936). Sabotage shocked audiences with one of the most astoundingly suspenseful sequences that had yet been committed to film. As we watch a child carry a bomb across London, all of us knowing that the thing is set to go off at one o’clock, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between shots of the boy with his terrible package and clock faces as they count out the seconds. As we begin to fear that—my god—he may actually be blown apart, Hitchcock allows the time to pass one o’clock, to go two minutes over the deadline. And then, suddenly, appallingly, just as we have started to sense that the device is faulty, that the boy will make it through after all, it detonates. The kid does not stay in the picture. Hitch once referred to this extraordinary scene as “a terrible mistake”. “I worked the audience up, and then I let the bomb go off,” he told Dick Cavett in a famous interview from 197“I had made the mistake of not relieving them [the audience] at the end of the suspense. In other words, if you put the audience through the mill like that, you must relieve them. The bomb must be found.” And yet, this “mistake” (he even claimed he would undo it if he had the chance) remains for me one of the most important sequences in his oeuvre.
The Legend: Alfred Hitchcock was raised in a strict Catholic household by difficult and highly punitive parents. (There’s a famous story of his father sending him down to the local police station with a note asking the cops to lock him up for ten minutes as punishment for some trifle he had committed at home!) An unhappy child, Hitchcock would find solace in his creative side, and would eventually turn to the new medium of film to exercise his frustrations. By 1920 he was working for a London film studio, making his way through the ranks toward the helm of his first major picture 1922’s Number 13. But it wasn’t until 1926 and The Lodger, a thriller, that Hitchcock really found his voice (not to mention his audience).
Transitioning from silent films to “talkies”, Hitchcock continued to steadily develop his reputation in Britain into the 1930s, and with each film he generated more attention overseas. Finally, in the late 1930s Hitchcock was successfully courted by American heavyweight producer David O. Selznick, and made the move to Hollywood where his career and reputation would reach unparalleled heights in short order. Ultimately, it seems likely that there will never be another filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock. Just imagine: this is a man whose career spanned almost 60 years, who survived the complex shifts from silent to talkie and black and white to colour, who worked as an auteur and a studio hack (sometimes simultaneously), who experimented with an array of original techniques (a real-time feature, a one-set film), and who managed to develop some of the most complex characters and arresting images ever committed to film.
At his peak, Hitchcock was averaging almost a film a year—in the most extraordinary example of his industriousness, he made seven movies (including at least three stone classics) between 1953 and 1956! Unable, or unwilling, to compromise, he was famously stubborn and pigheaded. He was also frustratingly sexist, blind to racial politics, and prone to armchair psychology. He had a black sense of humour and a soft spot (or was it an obsession?) with blondes. He wondered if anyone could ever truly be called “innocent”; he mistrusted bureaucracy and the very rich; he had a thing for gay subtexts. He hated death, but was drawn to it, as are we all. He helped to create the modern horror genre, the modern thriller, and the modern black comedy. He changed film, even as he was inventing new ways to approach it. Stuart Henderson
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