Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock – The Unrecognized Genius

The word unrecognized certainly sounds odd when used in a sentence with one of world's most well known directors. The name Alfred Hitchcock brings to mind so many films: Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Rear Window (and many of your own favorites), as well as his successful TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents . Still, for the longest time, and even today, Hitchcock is associated with entertainment rather than serious film making. He was much more: Hitchcock was a brilliant visual director who planned each shot and camera lens; he sketched designed the wardrobes for his leading ladies, which are still featured in fashion magazines; he fussed meticulously over his set designs; he hashed out the screenplays with his writers until they were perfect. What interests me the most are the themes his films explored, themes that were so ahead of their time a new name had to be invented: a term many film enthusiasts refer to as Hitchcockian.


In Rear Window (1954) Hitchcock brings us into the world of voyeurism. James Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies, a photographer who gets laid up with an injury and is confined to his apartment in a wheel chair. Out of boredom he begins spying on his neighbors.  Jefferies is soon joined by his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter);innocent voyeurism gets complicated when the three of them believe they have witnessed  a murder in one of the other apartments.

James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window

With Rear Window Hitchcock creates four dimensions of action in one location. The camera often starts in Jefferies' apartment, then pans counter-clockwise over the apartment complex (three buildings surrounding a center courtyard, and the biggest set Hitchcock ever created), stopping on a chosen window to pop in on the action going on there, then captures people either walking in from the street or walking out into it, which we can see from an alley between the apartment buildings. There is a cafe across the street which is constantly functioning throughout the film and serves as the fourth dimension we see.  So, even though all of the action is witnessed from Stewart's window, there are many characters and several atmospheres. The economy of this is amazing.

Vertigo(1958) centers around the themes of obsession, deception, and mistaken identity (a Hitchcock favorite). James Stewart is private investigator Scottie Ferguson hired by his old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novac). Gavin Elster claims that his wife is becoming so obsessed with the painting of a dead woman named Carlotta, that Carlotta's ghost might be inhabiting Madeleine. Ferguson reluctantly follows the wife and he himself becomes obsessed with the dead woman, in the process falling in love with Madeleine because she has transformed herself into a mirror image of Carlotta. 

James Stewart and Kim Novac in Vertigo.

Hitchcock not only deals with obsession here but necrophilia; Ferguson is essentially in love with a dead woman. Hitch uses colors in Vertigo to create the landscape of a surreal dream. Red surrounds Madeleine the first time Scottie Ferguson sees her, symbolizing both the instant passion ignited and a warning of the danger that lay ahead. There is also a famous shot when Kim Novak, dressed as Carlotta, emerges from a hotel bathroom. She appears from a light green haze that then fades into the green glow behind her, which is being cast from a green neon sign outside; the colors here suggest a spell that she has cast on Stewart, the crazy obsession that has now taken him over completely.  Martin Scorsese said of Vertigo (I am paraphrasing): "The plot doesn't always work, it doesn't make sense completely, but that doesn't matter. What we are experiencing is something like a surreal dream." Hitchcock, as a young man was very influenced by German expressionism and considered himself and expressionist director: he was much more concerned with the visceral than the plausible.

Psycho(1960) explores the duality of human nature; the camera shows us this by constantly framing the actors in mirrors and reflective surfaces.  Hitch also explores voyeurism again but with a darker approach than Rear Window; we the audience are the "peeping toms" this time, Hitchcock's camera the avatar for our salacious appetites. The first shot of the film establishes this, as it pans from a city-scape, through an open window, and into a seedy motel room.  Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) are in an embrace of sexual afterglow, she wears a bra and a slip and he is bare chested.  Its as if we are James Stewart in Rear Window, watching from across the way with our telephoto lens.

Alfred Hitchcock directs Janet Leigh in an iconic scene.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.

 We follow Marion Crane, who's one bad decision in the film's first few minutes leads her down a dark path that then leads to Norman Bates(Anthony Perkins) and the motel he runs with his mother.  Norman is quickly established as unstable and sinister but Hitch does something bold: he makes us empathize with Norman by establishing a connection between he and Marion. This is a wonderful trick Hitchcock uses throughout the film: shifting point of view. This was Hitchcock's 47th film and his last film in black and white, which he exploits for deep contrast with bright whites and shadows of deep black. Shot on a modest budget (that he put up himself) with the crew he used for his television show, Hitch wanted to make a non glamorous film that had not been made before. His vision was realized. Psycho traumatized audiences and became his most successful film. To this day it still his most famous work.


Hitchcock's films have influenced both classic and modern filmmakers widely diverse in style and approach: David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, This Boys Life), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore), Ridley Scott (Alien, American Gangster), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street). The more I study Hitchcock the more I find the origin of the scenes from many of my favorite films. But to get into the examples would be another blog. Perhaps next time. Until then I encourage you to explore the master and find these hidden gems for yourself. Happy movie watching! 




In 1962 French New Wave Filmmaker Francois Truffaut conducted a series of interviews with Hitchcock that became a legendary book Hitchcock/Truffaut (published in 1966). The 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut combines excerpts from these interviews with new interviews from directors influenced by his work. It is a must see for film buffs and anyone interested in Hitchcock's work.

 All three of the films I discussed are available on Blu Ray in beautiful restored form. There are commentaries available on each disc as well as excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews. 
 I found the commentaries invaluable and encourage you to check them out as well!
Psycho commentary by  Stephen Rebello, author of  Alfred Hitchcock: The Making Of Psycho 
Rear Window commentary by  John Fawell aouthor of Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made film
Vertigo commentary by director William Friedkin

Also check out the following:

 Film critic Roger Ebert 

Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB)


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