Alfred Hitchcock

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(1899 – 1980)

“Shoot your murder scenes like love scenes and your love scenes like murder scenes.”

Of the major filmmakers perhaps Alfred Hitchcock best embodies cinema’s great existential dilemma: are movies art or entertainment or both? If both where does one end and the other begin? Hitchcock is the closest we have to an answer. As he delighted audiences with his patented suspense set pieces and gallows humor, he also pushed the medium forward by experimenting with form and genre. Hitchcock was certainly a fine artist as well as a world-class showman, but which did (should) take precedence? That question continues to baffle critics as it somehow defines the whole medium’s discordant identity to this point. Born and raised near London, England, Alfred Hitchcock began his career in German cinema, designing titles; he then made his name directing British spy yarns, before achieving great success and notoriety in Hollywood. He long specialized in political thrillers (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Foreign Correspondent) and capers (To Catch A Thief and Family Plot) and dabbled in prestige pictures like the gothic adaptation Rebecca; but he always harbored darker proclivities satiated by such sinister tales as the Poe-esque Blackmail and serial killer procedurals The Lodger, Shadow of a Doubt, and Frenzy. Throughout his career he established several influential narrative devices, the most famous being the MacGuffin, a small plot detail that propels all the dramatic action. A MacGuffin could be as simple as a glass of milk (Suspicion) and a wedding ring (Dial M For Murder) or as complicated as a fictitious CIA operative (North By Northwest). Hitchcock took the term “femme fatale” to new heights when he cast beautiful movie stars like Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, and Kim Novac as icy blonde seductresses. He constructed films around elaborate conceits and bold gambits: for instance, a fake flashback (Stage Fright), a dream sequence devised by Salvador Dali (Spellbound), a war film set entirely on a raft (Lifeboat), and a murder aftermath contrived to appear as one continuous shot (Rope). Masterpieces like Strangers on a Train, Notorious, and Rear Window lend themselves to thematic interpretations by queer theorists, feminists, Freudian psychologists, and postmodernists, et al. Gathering a Hollywood dream-team—including his wife/collaborator Alma Reville, costumer Edith Head, title designer Saul Bass, and composer Bernard Herman—Hitchcock achieved greatness with Psycho, a blockbuster slasher film that revolutionized movie marketing, and Vertigo, a spiraling tone poem of obsession and idealized romance, which bombed in its day but is now considered one of the two or three greatest films ever made. In Psycho he demonstrates his attributes behind the camera, both his mastery of montage editing (the shower scene) and of suspense storytelling (notice how Mother’s face remains conveniently hidden). By the time The Birds and Marnie rolled around Hitchcock had gained a reputation as a pervert and a misogynist who famously compared actors to cattle. Tippie Hedren, the star of both, would later claim that he deliberately ruined her career. In any case Hitchcock is maybe the only filmmaker whose work casual viewers and scholarly critics can both completely agree on. Be it for study or stimuli watching one never ceases to enlighten and entertain.

Before you take that trip to the big movie-theater in the sky, watch: Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, and Notorious.

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