The Beneficial Shocker

By John V. Brennan

"I am to provide the public with beneficial shocks."
      -- Alfred Hitchcock

     Alfred Hitchcock, the most famous movie director in history, kept his name before the public eye for nearly five decades, from his first big hit The Lodger in 1927 to his 53rd and final film Family Plot in 1976.  He was so well known for his visual style and his recurring themes and plot points, his name became an adjective: "Hitchcockian", a word usually meaning, in a nice way, "This films rips off Hitchcock".

     A master of self-promotion, Alfred Hitchcock turned the necessity of acting as an extra in one of his early films into the tradition of making a short cameo appearance in all but 16 of his 53 films. Somewhere in most Alfred Hitchcock movies, the director himself will pass by on the street, be seen sitting in a hotel lobby or on a bus, or, if circumstances dictate, show up in a photograph. Audiences eagerly anticipated Hitch's  walk ons, so much so that the director himself eventually decided to do them early in the films so the audience could get back to paying attention to the plot.  
    More than his cameos, what really made Hitchcock a household name was Alfred Hitchcock Presents, an anthology television show that ran from 1955 to 1965 (it would be renamed The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962). The show featured Hitch introducing suspense stories each week in a droll, comical style that almost always contrasted with the mayhem and murder that was about to follow.  He played a caricature of himself, famous director Alfred Hitchcock, well known master of suspense. The public not only enjoyed his amusing introductions but also his kidding of sponsors ("Seeing a murder on television can help to work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, these commercials will give you some"), something that rarely if ever happened on television. He had little else to do with the show that bore his name except for directing a few episodes each season - some of the most memorable, of course -  but the TV caricature of Hitchcock became the real Hitchcock in many people's minds. It didn't hurt that while the show was on the air, Hitchcock was in the midst of a string of some of his strongest and most memorable films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.  The show helped promote the movie, and the movies helped promote the show.

    The real Alfred Hitchcock, the one the public didn't see, was an enigma.  One of the most creative men in film history, he was also one of the most aloof and hardest to know.  He trafficked in excitement, chills and thrills, yet he was afraid to drive a car himself for fear of being pulled over by a policeman.  His films are filled with confusion and danger, yet he demanded everything in his life be orderly and neat. He gloried in accolades for his work, yet could rarely offer a compliment to a fellow collaborator, a casual mention that his wife liked a script being his cool, detached way of showing his own approval of a screenwriter's efforts.  When Hollywood finally rewarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, after having never named him Best Director, his entire speech consisted of the words "Thank you," followed by a hastily added and almost unheard "Very much indeed."

"I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle."

     Although he allowed performers to bring bits of business to their roles, such as Anthony Perkins' idea that the twisted Norman Bates of Psycho should be a compulsive candy eater, Hitch did not like improvisation on the set.  To him, the creative part of making a movie was all in the pre-planning, as he kicked around ideas with writers, and storyboarded every single shot ahead of time.  More that once, he would come to the first day of shooting and tell his cast that the fun part was over now that he had to actually shoot the movie. Despite his famous comparisons of actors to cattle, he actually appreciated the talents of many of his stars. He was delighted to come to Hollywood from his native Britain in 1939 because he knew he could get big names, leading to, he hoped, big box office.  He understood what a Cary Grant, James Stewart or Ingrid Bergman could bring to a role and would often conceive a part or even a film with a particular cast in mind.  Because of his trust in most of the actors he chose, he seldom offered direction to them.  When Ingrid Bergman once objected that she didn't think she could play a particular scene properly, Hitch's sole comment was "Fake it!", a bit of advice the actress found rather liberating later in her career.

    Doris Day, whom Hitchcock himself cast as the female lead of his 1955 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, became so distraught by the director's lack of communication, she was convinced he didn't like her work.  When she confronted him, Hitch explained that he said nothing to her because he was perfectly pleased with her performance so far.  As actress Thelma Ritter (Rear Window) said: "If Hitchcock liked what you did, he said nothing.  If he didn't, he looked like he was going to throw up."

    Having already pictured the finished product both on paper and in his mind, Hitch would often close his eyes while shooting his films, confident that his cameraman would capture exactly what he had envisioned.  During the filming of Foreign Correspondent, actor Joel McRae, realizing Hitchcock had dozed off in his director's chair, yelled the required "Cut!" himself at the end of one scene.  Hitch sprang awake.  

    "Was it any good?" the director asked.

    "Best in the picture!" the actor replied.

    "Print it!" cried Hitch.

"My films went from being failures to masterpieces without ever being successes." 

    Once he became successful enough to call his own shots and not have to submit to scripts offered by the studios, his output was remarkably consistent.  As with any director, Hitch had his share of bad films, but a list of Hitchcock's best can put to shame the resumés of many much-admired modern day directors.  To name but a few Hitchcock films, spanning several decades: The LodgerThe 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, NotoriousStrangers on a Train, Rear Window, VertigoNorth by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.  Even as late as 1972, the aging director could still pull off a near-classic like Frenzy with all the panache and style of the young Hitchcock who had helmed The 39 Steps.  And this is only taking into account the cream of the crop.  Even average Hitchcock films such as the original The Man Who Knew Too MuchForeign Correspondent, Saboteur, Spellbound and Dial M for Murder still hold up today and contain their share of brilliant sequences and virtuoso camera movements.  To watch the otherwise so-so Young and Innocent and see the camera descend from a balcony, track through a ballroom to a bandstand and right up to a drummer's twitching eye all in a single unedited shot is to watch a director who talents and imagination were far beyond many of his contemporaries. 

    Over five decades of filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock developed his own trademarks.  Once can watch Hitchcock films from different eras and notice things that are almost as common in his movies as his cameo appearances. Domineering mothers. Suave villains. Cool, beautiful blonds.  Some item secretly clutched in a character's hand.  There is the "wrong man accused of a crime he didn't commit" storyline, variations of which were used in such films as The 39 Steps, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, Frenzy and, of course, quite literally, The Wrong Man. Let's not forget too the famous "McGuffin", the term Hitch used for the thing (a physical item or a piece of information stored in someone's head) that drives the plot but that nobody in the audience cares about.  The 39 Steps literally revolves around the question "What are the 39 Steps?" yet in the end, the man who knows gets killed before he can finish the full answer. The bankers, the detective, and the woman who stole it are all interested in the missing money in Psycho, but it becomes less and less important, even irrelevant, as the film progresses. There are times in Hitchcock films when spies, double agents, law enforcement officers and the stars are all running around chasing a McGuffin and we never do quite find out what it is all about. All that matters to Hitchcock, and us, is that there is something in the film that everybody wants that keeps them all running around like lunatics.

     You could write an entire Hitchcock encyclopedia based on common connections in his films ("Staircases as Portents of Evil - See Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Psycho, The Birds, Frenzy...") but perhaps one element that Hitchcock made completely his own was the momentary transfer of sympathy from the hero to the villain.  Again and again, while telling the tale of some poor schmoe whose life has been turned upside down by a random quirk of fate, Hitch will suddenly throw in a scene where the villain gets into a bit of trouble himself - Anthony Perkins trying to sink the car with a murder victim's body in the trunk, Robert Walker losing the lighter he plans to use as incriminating evidence against Farley Granger - and, by the sheer power of his command of film, Hitch makes us worry about the villain.  Why are we so relieved when the car finally sinks into the swamp in Psycho or Robert Walker retrieves the lighter from a storm drain in Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock knew something about human nature and what audiences expect from a film.  We want the hero to emerge victorious, but we don't want the villain to fail too soon, because that would spoil the picture.  This is why the potato truck sequence in Frenzy is so brilliant.  Even after he commits rape and murder on a woman, we still want the bad guy to get that incriminating tie clip from the clutched, rigor-mortised hand of the strangled woman he has hidden in the back of that truck.  He perpetrates yet another atrocity upon his now-dead victim's body by breaking her fingers one by one, yet we still breathe a collective sigh of relief when he gets that tie clip back. We don't like him; there is nothing redeeming about him at all.  In fact, he is undoubtedly one of Hitchcock's most inhuman villains.  But we don't want him to get his just desserts until the final frames. 

    Hitchcock was an inveterate experimenter.  In one scene in his first talkie, Blackmail, he had a character speak but, to create suspense, garbled all her dialog except for the repeated word "knife". To simulate an interior monologue in Murder! in the technically challenged early days of sound, he used a recording of an actor's voice and an orchestra, and had them both play off screen while an actor performed silently on screen.  Lifeboat was filmed on a single set while Rope was composed of ten minute takes, blended together in such a way that the entire film appears to contain not a single edit.  Some of his experiments are considered failures, but each one added to the director's knowledge of what would and would not work on film.

    Few directors have added so many iconic images to film history.  A villain hanging off The Statue of Liberty (Saboteur). A schoolyard playground playing host to hundreds of perching black crows (The Birds).  A bathtub drain turning into a murdered woman's eye (Psycho).  A man being chased by a crop-dusting plane in a desolate cornfield (North by Northwest).  And each one of these bizarre, unlikely images is set up with complete logic and precision by scripts approved by, nurtured by and sometimes even contributed to by Hitchcock himself.   For North by Northwest, arguably the most "Hitchcockian" Hitchcock film, he actually started with images of a delegate falling dead during a U.N. conference and a man hanging off Lincoln's nose and left it to screenwriter Ernest Lehman to construct the proper scenario that would contain these images. (Alas, neither image actually made the final cut, although Cary Grant and company were cavorting all over Mount Rushmore by the end of the film).

"Wake me up when the movie's over."
    --- Alfred Hitchcock as quoted by Bruce Dern on the set of the director's last film, Family Plot.

    You never know where Hitchcock-inspired scenes and shots might pop up.  In the James Bond film From Russia With Love (a truly Hitchcockian film), Bond is chased by a lone helicopter much the way Cary Grant was chased by that crop duster in North by Northwest.  In Die Hard, Alan Rickman's fatal fall from the Nakatomi Tower visually recalls similar falls in Hitchcock films, such as Norman Lloyd's fall from The Statue of Liberty in Saboteur.  In Scream, the killer known as Ghost Face is seen reflected in a closeup of his victim's eye, a combination of shots from Strangers on a Train and Psycho.  We can even look at an early scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and find a mini-tribute to The Birds, with flocks and flocks of of owls perched outside a house and hundreds of magical letters gaining entrance through a fireplace.  In 2007, Martin Scorsese directed a short mockumentary, "The Key to Reserva", that expertly and lovingly recreates everything that was great about Hitchcock, using parts of Bernard Herrmann's score from North by Northwest and including many references to Hitchcock films.

    Alfred Hitchcock died on the morning of April 29th, 1980, a lifetime of little exercise and alcoholic and gastronomic abuse having finally caught up to him.  But years, perhaps even decades before, he had already achieved immortality on film.  

Alfred Hitchcock     The Stuff You Gotta Watch

Copyright © John V. Brennan, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Stuff You Gotta Watch
Copyright © 2010 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee