Sinister Footfalls on a Darkened Stair: Hitchcock and His Continuing Sphere of Influence

Few directors have been as influential as Alfred Hitchcock. His lasting impact on the genre he more than ‘mastered” over the course of nearly five decades — the thriller — is undeniable and for generations of devoted filmmaking followers, his carefully constructed, mesmerizing set-piece sequences continue to be studied… and mimicked. Moreover, he is one of the rare directors who almost everyone knows, from studied scholar to your average Joe Pony Keg. To them, his name is synonymous with a certain style, a specific artistic approach, and more than one example of cinematic brilliance in his personal portfolio. When you look over his life behind the lens, his astonishing accomplishments speak for themselves.

While all can claim to have learned from him, a select few have made Hitchcock their main muse, their benchmark for crafting dread and the measure by which its success is calculated and considered. Within all their work is reference — some even border on outright worship — but it seems to go deeper than mere homage. In fact, when confronted with the work of such diverse directors as Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, John Carpenter, Kathyrn Bigelow, and Martin Scorsese (just to name a few), it is apparent that Hitchcock’s aesthetic reach goes far beyond an expressionistic shower scene, or a spine-tingling foot chase across the face of Mount Rushmore.

As far back as his heyday, Hitchcock was always being differentiated from his peers. During the New Wave, such French luminaries as Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut used him as a prime example of their burgeoning “auteur theory”. Centering on the concept that a filmmaker’s work clearly reflect his or her own personal passions and vision, it seemed tailor-made for the larger than life director. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, as he reached one creative zenith after another, Hitchcock was embraced by a new breed of artist, individuals in front of and behind the lens who wanted to explore all avenues of what the medium and artform had to offer. Their updates would literally redefine cinema.

One of the earliest examples of this can be found in the work of Italian maestro Dario Argento. With his unintentional “animals” trilogy — The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) — the fright filmmaker with a penchant for as much flash as fear used Hitchcock’s work as the basis for reinventing the beloved “giallo” genre in his native land. Named after the yellow book jackets these pulp chillers typically derived from, it was Argento who applied a more artistic approach to the otherwise sleazy example of cinematic exploitation. In his defining masterpiece, Profundo Rosso (1975), the director practically channeled Hitchcock, from a stylized opening sequence suggesting a Christmas season massacre to a last act walk through a deserted house that reveals more than mere motive.

Otherwise known as Deep Red, Argento’s bravura performance behind the lens is clearly the result of studying every part of his influence’s films. The movie opens with a psychic reading, the claret colored drapes as the backdrop striking within a theater setting (one of Hitchcock’s favorite locales). Later, the death that spawns the storyline is played out in an apartment adorned like a lost episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. As one horrific canvas after another fills the frame, we can see Argento beginning his dedication to “The MacGuffin” — Hitchcock’s favorite description of the mystery element that’s necessary to the narrative, but not the approach. Who the killer is in Profundo Rosso is far less important than how the movie gets to said conclusion, and the death scenes argue for the influence of similar staged murders like in Psycho or Frenzy. In fact, Deep Red could be viewed as the bastard child of Hitchcock’s later period, an era filled with cheeky cruelty and mass audience manipulation. Argento would even go on to create a 2005 TV movie entitled Do You Like Hitchcock? , an outright personal paean to the fabled filmmaker.

Though he too became a student of the original “Master”, John Carpenter also argued for Argento’s place in his pantheon of influences — especially in his mid ’70s period of surreal shockers such as Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Halloween (1978), his mainstream breakout, can easily be seen as a combination of Hitchcock and his able Italian student. From perverse POV and lingering tracking shots that start the seminal slasher film off on a gory note, to the use of ineffectual authority figures and oppressive unseen threats (another Hitch hallmark) Michael Myers journey back to his hometown of Haddenfield represents the post-modern precipice of suspense, the combination of old school techniques (the veiled threat, viewer involvement in the chase and reveal) and new wave reinterpretation that would jumpstart an entire subgenre.

Sometimes, the reverence was more like a rip-off. Brian DePalma practically forged his entire early career out of taking something akin to Hitchcock’s Greatest Hits and turning them into entire films. It’s easy to look back and see how Obsession (1976) mimicked Vertigo down to the Bernard Herrmann score and the romance with a look-alike subtext. Later, he would use Norman Bates cross-dressing tendencies for a sexed up version of Psycho known as Dressed to Kill (1980). All throughout his oeuvre, DePalma was more than a mere apprentice. Many considered him a thief, constantly cribbing from betters like Hitchcock as a means of avoiding his own lack of creative invention. With brilliant efforts like Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981), and Scarface (1983) however, it’s a difficult case to make. But it’s clear that DePalma’s generation, like the French before them, understood the magic within Hitchcock’s methodical madness — and wanted to explore each and every avenue.

Even unlikely candidates such as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola were clearly drawn into the devious director’s combination of form and functionality. Jaws (1975) is a veritable primer in Hitchcock technique, from the brilliant (if technologically necessary) decision to keep the shark — the MacGufffin — under wraps until the last minute to the use of camera tricks like the focus pull on Sheriff Brody during the Alex Kitner attack. In fact, it’s so clearly Hitchcock at times that you’d swear the elephantine English genius was sitting off shore at Martha’s Vineyard, calling the shots. As for Coppola, his own operatic sense of drama merged effortlessly with the Master of Suspense’s shortcut suggestiveness during the climatic gangland assassinations at the end of The Godfather (1972). From the victim trapped in a revolving door to Moe Green getting it right in the eye, it’s yet another example of how pervasive the Hitchcock ideal became.

With his death in 1980, the critical community kept watch on when “the next Hitchcock” would arrive. Carpenter had already abandoned the thriller for more gut-wrenching fare (moving from Argento to Fulci, one could argue) while DePalma was still defending himself against charges of planned artistic plagiarism. Some pointed to foreign filmmakers like George Sluizer (who offered the re-inventive classic The Vanishing — 1988) while some saw British directors like Ripley Scott and his brother Tony toy with the notion of dread before going off on their own calculated commercial benders. By the end of the decade, no one was sure if the genre was still viable. Silence of the Lambs may have started off the ’90s by picking up multiple Oscars (the first tagged ‘horror’ film to do so), but for many, the needs of suspense far outweighed talent and tenacity.

For genre jumper Danny Boyle, however, the category was ripe for a UK positioned return to form and his effortless Shallow Grave (1994) seemed like a sure step in the right direction. With its simple, strategically sound premise (three roommates run into a dead flatmate, a suitcase of cash, and their own insatiable greed) and its gung-ho fetish with all aspects of film, it was the closest thing to Hitchcock since the director himself left his homeland six decades previous for the siren studio call of Hollywood. Boyle would go on to embrace all aspects of the medium, returning to the type for The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later (2002), and certain elements of his Oscar winning effort, Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

He was matched, hype for happenstance, by a student of Spielberg and the old studio mannerisms — M. Night Shyamalan. With The Sixth Sense (1999), the Indian-born, American-raised wunderkind played Hitchcock perfectly, from the carefully crafted script that never once cheapened or challenged the last act “twist” to the understated means of manufacturing and manipulating dread. It would soon become his overwhelming approach of choice, a moviemaking means he would explore again and again with Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004). Unlike Hitchcock, however, who seemed to have critical carte blanche to tackle anything he really wanted, Shyamalan saw the success of The Sixth Sense as much a burden as a badge of honor. He would eventually strain under the stress, creating undeniably bad efforts like The Lady in the Water (2006) and The Happening (2008).

And still the search raged on. Many pointed to James Cameron and his technically precise epics as possible inheritors of Hitchcock’s mantle, but the comparison, while compelling, remains a reach. Similarly, Robert Zemeckis has shown a deft hand at chills, but with such uneven examples as What Lies Beneath and Cast Away (both 2000), it’s hard to champion him as well. About the closest anyone has come recently to bringing back the type of terror that Hitchcock handled flawlessly was Hurt Locker (2009) helmer Kathryn Bigelow. Her take on the Iraq War and a daredevil bomb disposal unit was rich with elements taken directly from the Master. The moment Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant First Class William James uncovers a veritable web of anti-personal devices directly under his feet, you could practically hear Hitchcock giggling with envious delight.

In fact, the most compelling element of his obvious lasting legacy might just be on the indirect desire by directors to impress the artform and one-up themselves. Quentin Tarantino, who is about as far removed from Hitchcock as any modern moviemaker can be, obviously enjoys coming up with sequences that will shock and stupefy his viewer. Even if they appear lifted from a dozen different sources, he wants to make sure that you walk away from his experience satiated and satisfied that you’ve never quite seen his cinematic combination before. It’s chest-thumping of a celluloid kind, ambition directly tapped from Hitchcock’s own meticulous desire to amaze. The same can be said for the rash of “found footage” films, movies asking us to merge real life and the forms of fiction to create a kind of aesthetic “other” — a place where truth meets the mandates of motion pictures to blur the edges of what’s authentic and what’s artificial.

This was what Hitchcock strove for — a different cinematic genuineness. When Tippi Hedren’s reaction shots were held, like still portraits, over the impending explosion of a gas station pump (and the man standing next to it), he wasn’t trying to make The Birds feel more ‘real’. Instead, he wanted to impart the gut reaction impact of seeing such carnage, of witnessing death stand up and demand attention right in front of your very eyes. He would constantly tweak this idea, from the fish-eyed glass lens moment from Strangers on a Train to the beat-for-beat bravado of a Notorious Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman attempting to uncover a devious Nazi plot. Events like this could never honestly be witnessed in real life. For his part, Hitchcock took his camera and cleared out all the barriers and boundaries. What we found instead were moments of heart-pounding horror and edge of your seat chills.

Recently, American auteur Martin Scorsese dabbled in the dark side with his supremely effective 2010 thriller Shutter Island (his first since the remake of Cape Fear nearly twenty years ago). While he was always an admirer of Hitchcock (his title sequences often referenced — and frequently utilized — the director’s favorite architect of same, Saul Bass) and played within his world of arcane angles and clever camera tricks, he’d never really paid homage to the man’s moviemaking. But with the story of a mysterious insane asylum and a police investigation that might just be one massive psychological game all its own, Scorsese set out to show Hitchcock’s spirit a thing or two — and delivered on every account.

So when you consider that the man hasn’t made a movie since 1976’s Family Plot, died four years later, only ever won an Oscar as part of that notorious career overview labeled “Honorary”, and often called filmmaking “the worst part” of the entire process (he dearly loved almost everything about pre-production), such a mighty, massive mythos is impressive. Indeed, to instill in even the most accomplished director a desire to stretch his or her own Hitchcockian wings (an actual word, mind you), to find their own personal Suspicion or Rear Window is a continuing testament to the man who almost singlehandedly inscribed the entire thriller handbook. While others have tried to inherit the title of ‘Master’, there is only one true sage of suspense. With a graduating class as impressive as his, there is no doubting Alfred Hitchcock’s enduring sway. More than just a household name, he’s a brand — and a brilliant one at that.


The Optimist Died Inside of Me: Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Narrow Stairs’

Silent Film’s Raymond Griffith Pulled Tricksters Out of Top Hats

The 10 Most Memorable Non-Smash Hit Singles of 1984

30 Years of Slowdive’s ‘Souvlaki’