In a single decade between 1954 and 1964 Alfred Hitchcock would Produce and Direct a dozen perfect movies, most notably Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. Although only accounting for a third of his career, this would be his “Golden Period” and with each decade that passes these films seem to get better and better.
I remember one Christmas, 1988 I think, BBC 2 had a short season of Hitchcock films scheduled between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, I circled them in red marker pen in the Radio Times so not to miss them and bought three brand new 180 minute, highest quality, Scotch Video Tapes. I would sit with the video player set in pause and record ready to capture these great works of art. I was 17 years old at the time and I recall wearing those tapes out viewing and reviewing these cinematic gems over and over again.
I intend to review each of these films individually, starting with North by Northwest and Psycho, the only two Hitchcock films released on Blu-ray to date. I am hoping that Rear Window and Vertigo shall follow swiftly, although I am a tad perplexed that Vertigo hasn’t materialised sooner as it was digitally restored for DVD fairly recently.
Hitchcock believed in what he called “pure cinema”, that is a story that can be conveyed entirely through images and, as someone who trained at the UFA film studio in Germany during the silent era, this is not surprising. The studio was responsible for the classics of Fritz Lang, Metropolis and F. W. Murnau, Faust and whilst there Hitchcock directed The Pleasure Garden.
Hitchcock returned to Britain making two early classics for producer Michael Balcon, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps the first film to use what Hitchcock referred to as the ‘MacGuffin’ which basically was a plot device, usually a search for an object or person that propels the narrative but itself is of little significance to the outcome of the story. Hitchcock recounted this in a recorded conversation with François Truffaut, which is included as an extra on the recently released 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Psycho.
There are two men sitting in a train going to Scotland and one man says to the other, ‘Excuse me, sir, but what is that strange parcel you have on the luggage rack above you?’, ‘Oh’, says the other, ‘that’s a MacGuffin.’, ‘Well’, says the first man, ‘what’s a MacGuffin?’, The other answers, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’, ‘But’, says the first man, ‘there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’, ‘Well’, says the other, ‘then that’s no MacGuffin.’
Hitchcock was wooed to work in America by legendary producer David O. Selznick, the man responsible for such classics as King Kong and Gone With The Wind. They were to make three films together, Rebecca, starring Laurence Oliver as the mysterious Max de Winter, followed by Spellbound and The Paradine Case both with Gregory Peck. The best, for my money, is Spellbound not least for the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, and for Ingrid Bergman’s intelligent portrayal of the psycho-analyst who for falls for her colleague, Peck, whom she discovers has a murderous secret identity.
Now a permanent US resident Hitch produces and directs Notorious, the first of four films to star Cary Grant, including Suspicion, To Catch A Thief and culminating with the Hitchcock film that seems to, at once, parody but still top his others, North By Northwest. Before making home at Universal Studios, Hitch delivered a string of films for Warner Brothers, most notably Strangers On A Train which explores the notion of sanity when two men undertake to murder each other’s victims to avoid detection. This brings us to Rear Window and the start of the unbroken golden period ending with Marnie.
There is so much I feel I can write about Hitchcock, that to attempt to do so here would be overlong and unfocused. I shall, instead, examine his themes and style in detail, discussing the films with illustrative examples. Hitchcock, must be, without a shadow of a doubt (see what I did there!) the single most influential film Director of all time and it’s impossible to imagine the medium without his staggeringly consistent body of work.