Alfred Hitchcock personifies cinematic suspense, he virtually invented it and then wrote the book on how to portray it on the screen. You only have to think of the shadowy figure approaching the shower curtain in Psycho, or the eerie enclosure of the San Francisco streets in Vertigo, the windmill spinning backwards in Foreign Correspondent, the violent storms of Marnie and, of course, Cary Grant’s darting run across the cornfields from a diving airplane in North by Northwest, to see that.
He was the master, emulated by the best, compare the opening credits of Goodfellas and the narrative of Mulholland Drive to Psycho for example, and one sees that Scorsese and Lynch are fans, add to that list Spielberg, Truffaut, Charbol, Almodovar, De Palma and countless others, Hitchcock devotes all. Hitch’s influence over the film of today 31 years after his death is still impressive, so it is no wonder that the British Film Institute plans to devote a large chunk of its screen time in 2012 to a Hitchcockian feast.
So, why is Alfred Hitchcock one of the most influential film directors of the 20th century? The answer to that question is long winded and no doubt disputable, but a good starting point is to say that his were some of the first films to grab the audience by the scruff of the neck and immerse them deep within the story being told. Think of Rear Window, that great physiological thriller from 1954 with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. It’s a story basically about voyeurism, as Stewart, stranded in a wheelchair with a leg in plaster, becomes obsessed with observing the lives of his neighbours through a telescope. Hitchcock guides the camera towards the windows so we get a glimpse of their lives too, not to the extent that we know fully what is going on inside, but enough to get us interested, enough to get the audience craning their necks to get a better view, wanting to know more, turning those watching into voyeurs themselves, the basis of the cinematic medium.
His contribution to the horror genre is considerable too. Psycho basically opened the door for graphic violence on the screen, although its violent content is relatively tame by today’s standards, in its day Psycho was quite outrageous. And again even in the more violent episodes in his films, the audience is front row centre, with inventive camera shots being utilized to plant us deep within the character’s field of vision, implicitly involving us in the murder. This is a technique used constantly by directors today, but was a Hitchcock innovation.
The mastery of different moods throughout his work is also noteworthy, contrast the ghostly almost Gothic atmosphere of Rebecca (1940), with the seedy neon London of Frenzy (1972) for example, the camera backtracking away from a murder scene down a dingy staircase and out into a heaving city street, presenting the underbelly of a city in one unbroken shot. And then of course we have the consistently odd and unsettling characters, represented best in these two films by the meddling viciousness of the omnipresent Mrs Danvers, Manderley’s horrific housekeeper, played expertly by Judith Anderson in Rebecca, and the creepy serial killing rapist, Robert Rusk, played by Barry Foster in Frenzy.
In simple terms Hitchcock was a master story teller, who told his stories with an overwhelming sense of style. What really is better than watching Cary Grant charm his way across America in North By Northwest, wearing beautiful suits, blagging his way into Eva Marie Saint’s arms and whispering “the moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her,” before giving James Mason his comeuppance while clambering all over Geroge Washington’s face? Not much. Many of Hitchcock’s techniques have been passed down to today’s directors and that is a testament to his genius, but there is a certain sense of style that simply cannot be recaptured or summoned up out of thin air. He should have bottled it, because it’s impossible to re-create.
The Genius of Hitchcock season at the BFI Southbank, London, runs June – October 2012 http://www.bfi.org.uk/