Monday, October 16, 2006

Great Film Icons #4: Alfred Hitchcock

"There is a dreadful story that I hate actors. Imagine anyone hating Jimmy Stewart... or Jack Warner. I can't imagine how such a rumor began. Of course it may possibly be because I was once quoted as saying that actors are cattle. My actor friends know I would never be capable of such a thoughtless, rude and unfeeling remark, that I would never call them cattle... What I probably said was that actors should be treated like cattle." ~Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born August 13th 1899, in Leytonstone, London, the second son and youngest of the three children of William Hitchcock, a greengrocer, and his wife, Emma Jane Hitchcock. Growing up in a predominantly catholic family Hitchcock was sent to various Catholic boarding schools and often described his childhood as being very lonely and sheltered, which was undoubtedly compounded by his weight issues.

Hitchcock claimed that on one occasion early in his life, after he had acted childishly, his father sent him to the local police station carrying a note. When he presented the police officer on duty with the note, he was locked in a cell for a few moments, long enough to be petrified. This was a favorite anecdote of his, and the incident is often cited in connection with the theme of distrust of police which runs through many of his films. His mother would often make him address her while standing at the foot of her bed, especially if he behaved badly, forcing him to stand there for hours. This would be recalled by the character Norman Bates in Psycho.

Hitchcock lost his father at the age of 14 and seeing the opportunity left the jesuit run school he had been attending to study at the School for Engineering and Navigation. After graduating, he became a draftsman and advertising designer with a cable company.

About that same time Hitchcock became intrigued by photography and started working in film in London. In 1920, he obtained a full-time job at Islington Studios under its American owners, Famous Players-Lasky, and their British successors, Gainsborough Pictures, designing the titles for silent movies.

As a major talent in a new industry with plenty of opportunity, he rose quickly. In 1925, Michael Balcon of Gainsborough Pictures gave him a chance to direct his first film, The Pleasure Garden, made at the Ufa studios in Germany. However, this as well as his second film The Mountain Eagle failed commercialy and he almost gave up but his third movie, his first in the thriller genre, was a major success and etched out the foundation of his career.

Released in 1927, The Lodger featured Expressionist techniques he had witnessed firsthand in Germany and of course attractive blondes who are strangled and the new lodger (Ivor Novello) in the Bunting family's upstairs apartment falls under heavy suspicion. It was the success of The Lodger, wich caused Hitchcock began his first efforts of self promotion in the media, hiring a publicist to cement his place in the growing British cinema.

In 1926, Hitchcock married his assistant director Alma Reville. They had a daughter, Patricia, in 1928. According to many people who knew Hitchcock, he couldn't stand to even look at his wife while she was pregnant. Never the less Alma was Hitchcock's closest collaborator. She wrote some of his screenplays and (though often uncredited) worked with him on every one of his films.

In 1929, he began work on Blackmail, his tenth film and his first sound movie, the climax of the film taking place on the dome of the British Museum, this is also the beganing of Hitchcock's tradition of using famous landmarks as the backdrop to a story. In 1935 with The 39 Steps Hitchcock began the use of another of his regular plot devices, the "MacGuffin", a plot device around which a whole story would revolve.

By the end of the 1930s, Hitchcock was at the top of his game artistically, and in a position to name his own terms that's when David O. Selznick managed to entice the Hitchcocks to Hollywood. Hitchcock's gallows humour continued in his American work, together with the suspense that became his trademark. However, working arrangements with his new producer were less than optimal. Selznick suffered from perennial money problems and Hitchcock was often unhappy with the amount of creative control demanded by Selznick over his films. Consequently, Selznick ended up "loaning" Hitchcock to the larger studios more often than producing Hitchcock's films himself.

With the prestigious Selznick picture Rebecca in 1940, Hitchcock made his first American movie, set in England and based on a novel by English author Dame Daphne du Maurier. This Gothic melodrama explores the fears of a naïve young bride who enters a great English country home and must grapple with the problems of a distant husband, a predatory housekeeper, and the legacy of her husband's late wife, the beautiful, mysterious Rebecca. This film is also noted for the lesbian undercurrents in Judith Anderson's performance. His bridling under the heavy hand of producer David O. Selznick was exemplified by the final scene of Rebecca (1940). Selznick wanted his director to show smoke coming out of the burning house's chimney forming the letter 'R." Hitch thought the touch lacked any subtlety; instead, he showed flames licking at a pillow embroidered with the letter 'R.'

Rebecca was a huge critical success winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1940, Hitchcock however did not win the Best Director award; the rules of the academy at the time dictated that the Award for Best Picture go to the producer Selznick. This is one reason why Hitchcock began producing his own films in later years, though ironically he never received an Academy Award as director or producer, although he was awarded the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1967 Oscars. He delivered the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history simply saying "Thank you.".

Click here to watch the trailer for Rebecca:

Even after the success of Rebecca there were additional problems between Selznick and Hitchcock; Selznick, as he usually did, imposed very restrictive rules upon Hitchcock, hindering his creative control. Hitchcock was forced to shoot the film as Selznick wanted, immediately creating friction within their relationship. At the same time, Selznick complained about Hitchcock's "goddam jigsaw cutting," which meant that the producer did not have nearly the leeway to create his own film as he liked, but had to follow Hitchcock's vision of the finished product.

Hitchcock's work during the 1940s was diverse, ranging from the romantic comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) and the courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947) to the dark and disturbing Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Shadow of a Doubt, his personal favourite, was about young Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright), who suspects her beloved uncle Charlie Spencer (Joseph Cotten) of murder. In its use of overlapping characters, dialogue, and closeups it has provided a generation of film theorists with psychoanalytic potential, including Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek. The film also hearkens to one of Cotten's better known films, Citizen Kane.

Spellbound (1945) starring a young Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman explored the then very fashionable subject of psychoanalysis and featured a dream sequence which was designed by Salvador Dalí. The actual dream sequence in the film was considerably cut from the original planned scene that was to run for some minutes but proved too disturbing for the finished film. This film also contained two unprecedented point-of-view shots were achieved by constructing a large wooden hand (which would appear to belong to the character whose point of view the camera took) and outsized props for it to hold: a bucket-sized glass of milk and a large wooden gun. For added novelty and impact, the climactic gunshot was hand-coloured red on some copies of the black-and-white print of the film.

Notorious (1946) marked Hitchcock's first film as a producer as well as director. As Selznick failed to see the subject's potential, he allowed Hitchcock to make the film for RKO. From this point on, Hitchcock would produce his own films, giving him a far greater degree of freedom to pursue the projects that interested him. Starring Hitchcock regulars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, and featuring a plot about Nazis, uranium, and South America, Notorious was a huge box office success and has remained one of Hitchcock's most acclaimed films. Its inventive use of suspense and props briefly led to Hitchcock's being under surveillance by the CIA due to his use of uranium as a plot device.

Rope (his first colour film) came next in 1948. Here Hitchcock experimented with marshalling suspense in a confined environment, as he had done with an earlier picture with Lifeboat. He also experimented with exceptionally long takes — up to ten minutes. Featuring James Stewart in the leading role, Rope was based on the real Leopold and Loeb case of the 1920s, Rope is also among the earliest openly gay-themed films to emerge from the Hays Office–controlled Hollywood studio era.

With Strangers on a Train (1951), based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Hitchcock combined many of the best elements from his preceding British and American films. Two men casually meet and speculate on removing people who are causing them difficulty. One of the men, though, takes this banter entirely seriously. With Farley Granger reprising some elements of his role from Rope, Strangers continued the director's interest in the narrative possibilities of homosexual blackmail and murder.

MCA head Lew Wasserman, whose client list also included James Stewart and Janet Leigh among other actors who would appear in Hitchcock's films, had a significent impact in packaging and marketing Hitchcock's films from the 1950s and on. With Wasserman's help, Hitchcock not only received tremendous creative freedom from the studios, but with Paramount's profit-sharing contract, Hitchcock received substantive financial rewards as well.

Three very popular films, all starring Grace Kelly, followed. Dial M for Murder (1954) was adapted from the popular stage play by Frederick Knott. This was originally another experimental film, with Hitchcock using the technique of 3D cinematography, although the film was apparently never released in this format at first; it did receive screenings in the early 1980s in 3D form. Rear Window starred James Stewart again, as well as Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr. Here, the wheelchair-bound Stewart observes the movements of his neighbours across the courtyard and becomes convinced one of them has murdered his wife. Like Lifeboat and Rope, the movie was photographed almost entirely within the confines of a small space: Stewart's tiny studio apartment overlooking the massive courtyard set. To Catch a Thief, set in the French Riviera, starred Kelly and Cary Grant.

1958's Vertigo again starred Stewart, this time with Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes. The film was a commercial failure, but has come to be viewed by many as one of Hitchcock's masterpieces.

Hitchcock followed Vertigo with three very different films, which were all massive commercial successes. All are also recognised as among his very best films: North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). The latter two were particularly notable for their unconventional soundtracks, both by Bernard Herrmann: the screeching strings in the murder scene in Psycho pushed the limits of the time, and The Birds dispensed completely with conventional instruments, using an electronically produced soundtrack.

Click here to watch the famous shower scene from Psycho:

These were his last great films, after which his career slowly wound down (although some critics such as Robin Wood and Donald Spoto contend Marnie, from 1964, is first-class Hitchcock). In 1972, Hitchcock returned to London to film Frenzy, his last major success. For the first time, Hitchcock allowed nudity and profane language, which had before been taboo, in one of his films.

Click here to watch the famous plane scene from North by Northwest:

Click here to watch a promotional film for North By Northwest hosted by Hitchcock himself.

Failing health slowed down his output over the last two decades of his life. Although from about 1977 until his death, he worked with a succession of writers on a film to be known as "The Short Night". The majority of the writing was done by David Freeman, who published the final screenplay after Hitchcock's death.

Hitchcock was created a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in the 1980 New Years Honours. He died just four months later, on April 29, before he had the opportunity to be formally invested by the Queen. He was nevertheless entitled to be known as Sir Alfred Hitchcock and to use the postnominal letters "KBE", because he remained a British subject when he adopted American citizenship in 1956. Alfred Hitchcock died from renal failure in his Bel-Air, Los Angeles home, aged 80, and was survived by his wife Alma Reville, and their daughter, Patricia Hitchcock O'Connell. A funeral service was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills. Hitch's suggestion for his tombstone inscription was "This is what we do to bad little boys." His body was cremated and the ashes scattered.

Most of Hitchcock's films contain cameo appearances by Hitchcock himself: the director would be seen for a brief moment boarding a bus, crossing in front of a building, standing in an apartment across the courtyard, or appearing in a photograph. This playful gesture became one of Hitchcock's signatures. As a recurring theme he would carry a musical instrument — especially memorable was the large double bass case that he wrestles onto the train at the beginning of Strangers on a Train. He always made his appearances in the beginning of the films, because he knew viewers were watching for him and he didn't want to divert their attention away from the story's plot.

Click here to watch some of Hitchcock's many cameos:

The Quotable Alfred Hitchcock:
"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder"

"To me Psycho was a big comedy. Had to be."

"Even my failures make money and become classics a year after I make them."

"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible"

"When an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, 'It's in the script.' If he says, 'But what's my motivation?, ' I say, 'Your salary.'"

"There is nothing quite so good as a burial at sea. It is simple, tidy, and not very incriminating."

About Dario Argento and his film Profondo rosso: "This young Italian guy is starting to worry me."

On directing Charles Laughton: "You can't direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee."

"If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on."

[regarding "The Birds"] You know I've often wondered what the Audubon Society's attitude might be to this picture.

"Cary Grant is the only actor I ever loved in my whole life."

"Blondes make the best victims. They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints."