The Master

By Michael Roberts

"Mystery is an intellectual process... But suspense is essentially an emotional process."
~ Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock enjoys a reputation as 'the master of suspense', but in truth the last two words are redundant to film scholars and lovers of movies. Hitchcock learnt his craft at the hands of the German expressionist masters of the silent era and his visual acuity and the ability to tell stories in purely cinematic ways never left him. Hitch's trademark obsession's are well known, they involve cool and remote blondes and protagonists under pressure, often needing to clear their name from some false accusation. This paradigm allowed full range for Hitchcock to investigate the psychological aspects of his characters, and because he could counterpoint these inner explorations with bold and innovative action sequences he could provide superb entertainments that were intellectually satisfying as well. No mean feat in any era.

Alfred Hitchcock was, as Bogart liked to claim about himself, a “last century man”, born on August 13, 1899. After early ambitions to be an engineer foundered he tried his hand at writing and landed a job doing title cards for silent cinema studios. At London’s Islington Studio he also worked in many low level jobs, eventually becoming assistant director on several films when Michael Balcon took the studio over, the first of which involved meeting Alma Reville, his future wife. Hitch began his career in earnest Germany between the wars, in the era of the vibrant artistic  swirl  of the Weimar Republic as writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers came to terms with the devastation of WWI. He was offered the opportunity to direct and although the two films Hitchcock made in Germany in 1925 were not commercial successes Balcon backed him to produce, The Lodger, his first hit and a technical triumph. The film also saw Hitch use cinema to play upon the deep fears of his audiences, and many tropes that would become part of his cinematic signature were first revealed in The Lodger – an innocent man falsely accused, a pretty blonde girl in peril, a frantic chase and a ‘Hollywood’ ending. The latter taught Hitch something about the commercial component of making movies as he used the biggest star in Britain in the film, something he would do for most of his career in filling leading roles, and promptly discovered that Ivor Novello was not to be a possible bad guy due to an ambiguous ending. Balcon backed Novello and that was that, lesson learned. 

Hitchcock called The Lodger the first ‘Hitchcock film’ and after another half dozen silent films he further enhanced his reputation by making Britain’s first ‘talkie’ in 1929, Blackmail. The film was started as a silent but the producers insisted on re-shooting it as a sound film, which caused a headache for a Hitch as his lead actress, Anny Ondra, had a thick Eastern European accent, as a solution the typically resourceful director had her mouth the words as another English actress spoke them off camera! Ever the innovator Hitchcock found a way to immediately use sound in a non-realist way, adding to the director’s suite of options in manipulating his audience and twisting the atmosphere and mood to his will. The sound film was a sensation, even if the silent version did better business, and Hitchcock became a star director in his own right, commanding as much press ink as the matinee idols of the day. Blackmail also introduced Hitch’s trademark ‘climax at a famous locale’ trope, something the stills photographer on the set claims to have suggested, none other than Michael Powell.

After a series of projects marking time Hitchcock was again at the front ranks of British film in 1934 with The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Peter Lorre and Nova Pilbeam, a situation he underscored the next year with one of his finest films, The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. Assured and confident, Hitchcock maintained the viability of his late British period with gusto and wit, making a couple of serviceable spy thrillers in 1936 before producing another of his all-time best in 1938 with The Lady Vanishes, starring Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood.  Charles Laughton convinced Hitch to next make Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, but Laughton’s autocratic roughshod ways as the producer led Hitch to bemoan the flat results, although it did very well at the box office. Hitch had been on the radar in Hollywood for several years, but it was David O. Selznick who landed the whale, signing the director to a 4 picture deal in 1939. Hitch and Alma left for America, and settled there for the rest of their lives.

Selzick had lured Hitch to Hollywood with the promise of much bigger budgets, cutting-edge technical resources and major Hollywood stars at his command (and $800k per film to Hitch’s bank account). He had also promised that the first film would be a big budget story on the Titanic, but bought the rights to another du Maurier novel, the gothic thriller, Rebecca. The result was a stunningly visual film (featuring wonderful performances from Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) that won Selznick his second Best Picture Oscar in a row, but one that Hitchcock had little affection for because of the producer’s constant meddling. After du Maurier passed on adapting her own book, because she hated what Hitchcock did with Jamaica Inn, Hitch oversaw a screenplay very different from the novel, at which point an apoplectic Selznick intervened and reinstated a faithful adaptation. Selznick was further frustrated by Hitchcock’s practice of shooting almost everything to a detailed storyboard, in effect limiting the editing options and increasing the chance that only the version Hitchcock wanted could be cut together. The Best Picture win may have papered over the cracks in their relationship, but it took Hitchcock 8 years to work off his contract to Selznick, during which time he was ‘on loan’ to other producers and studios, in fact Hitch made 6 films away from Selznick in the same period.

Hitchcock’s second American film, Foreign Correspondent, was a much more personal project, and given the near All-British nature of Rebecca it was his first with an American star, Joel McRae, after he’d offered it to Gary Cooper who turned it down.. Whereas Rebecca focused on the woman’s story, this was Hitch back on the familiar ground of The 39 Steps, where the protagonist bounces over several countries in search of answers, usually with a beautiful wise-cracking girl not far behind. The director made Mr and Mrs Smith, a Carole Lombard vehicle and his first American comedy, before he returned to the suspense film with Suspicion, getting star Joan Fontaine an Oscar opposite a not-quite-villainous Cary Grant. The spy thriller genre and the war occupied his next film, the inventive and fast paced Saboteur, with Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd, who would become one of Hitch’s lifelong friends and featured in a memorable climax scene, falling to his death from the Statue of Liberty.

Hitchcock’s next run of films represented an unbroken hot streak, including his own personal favourite, Shadow of A Doubt, with Joseph Cotten as an ordinary suburban murderer. He made the brilliant and claustrophobic Lifeboat next, where almost all the action takes place in a boat populated by survivors of a Nazi torpedo and then helmed a couple of Ingrid Bergman vehicles, Spellbound, opposite Gregory Peck, a slightly laboured psychological thriller with the famous Dali designed dream sequence and the incomparable Notorious, with Cary Grant opposite the luminous Swedish import. Incredibly Selznick sold the entire property to RKO because he was bleeding funds with Duel In The Sun, his project for mistress/future wife Jennifer Jones. Peck returned for the last film in Hitchcock’s contract with Selznick, The Paradine Case, a film that neither would remember with fondness, but it featured extended 10 minute takes, a then revolutionary technique that Hitch would employ with a vengeance on his next film.

In 1948 Hitch formed his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures and embarked upon his first colour feature, Rope, starring James Stewart. Hitchcock wanted to create the illusion of a feature film shot in a single take, but had to devise several clever ways to cover the fact a camera reel lasted only 10 minutes. The film was mostly ignored upon its release, probably because of its distasteful subject matter and the homosexual subtext, but it remains one of Hitchcock’s A-list achievements, featuring excellent performances from Stewart and from Farley Granger and John Dall as the young killers. Hitch also employed the technique to some of his next production, Under Capricorn, a bizarre attempt to put Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten into the early 1800’s colonial Australia. The film failed miserably, so much so that it cost him Transatlantic Pictures which went belly up on the back of it. Hitchcock licked his wounds and signed a long-term deal with Warner Brothers and produced an average film with the London filmed Stage Fright before he came roaring back to form with Strangers On A Train, with Farley Granger and cast against type, Robert Walker.

"A woman, I always say, should be like a good suspense movie: The more left to the imagination, the more excitement there is. This should be her aim - to create suspense, to let a man discover things about her without her having to tell him." ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was fully in his element on Strangers On A Train, a delicious proposition in Hitchcock-ian terms, of murders being exchanged by people with no connection to each other. At a time in his life when most directors would be winding down or sputtering out after 30 years in the industry, Hitch was about to produce several masterpieces. After a nondescript film with Montgomery Clift called I Confess, where the actor's method clashed with the director's vision, he found his ideal ice-blonde in Grace Kelly and made his next three films with her, developing a kind of obsession with the patrician actress and he would curse the day when the Prince from Monaco took her away. Their first film was an excellent adaptation of a stage play, Dial M for Murder, with a fine performance from Kelly, but their next film paired her with James Stewart in the masterful, Rear Window. Hitchcock had great fun with the full size toy box he had built as the set, and Thelma Ritter added a cracking dimension to the small but talented cast.

Hitchcock tapped Cary Grant for the next Grace Kelly project, To Catch a Thief, a fluffy conceit set in the south of France. The location and local hospitality proved terminal to Kelly's acting career, even if some years later she entertained the idea of a comeback in Hitch's film Marnie. Hitchcock cooled his heels with a lightweight comedy called The Trouble With Harry, before he re-made (sort of) one of his early British films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, putting James Stewart together with Doris Day in a colourful and atmospheric thriller. In a change of mood he made the very fine policier, The Wrong Man, starring Henry Fonda, a downbeat late noir full of Hitchcock-ian tropes and tricks that played to the director's own darkest fears. 

In an almost unprecedented run for a director of his age, he then constructed 4 masterpieces in a row, entertaining, innovative, authoritative and undeniably the work of a master. James Stewart made his final film with Hitch, the fetid, stunning fever dream that is Vertigo, with Kelly substitute Kim Novak, which touched deeply on a man's dark, voyeuristic obsession with a woman (hello Hitch!). Hitch called Cary Grant for one last turn in the ridiculously entertaining North by Northwest, with Kelly substitute Eve Marie Saint and train tunnels pointing to Hitch's sexual innuendo, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek. Psycho changed the way movies were promoted and also what narrative disruption could stretch to in popular film, with Kelly substitute Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in a career defining role. Hitch topped the run with a stunning technical achievement and a remarkable dissertation on the power of nature, The Birds, where he found Tippi Hedren, a model with no acting meaningful experience, who became his new Grace Kelly, he signed her to an exclusive contract and set about moulding her in every way into his ideal starlet.

After the technical and commercial triumph of The Birds, Hitchcock’s career was at its zenith, and he promptly delivered what may be his Peeping Tom in many ways, the perverse, misogynistic and troubling if flawed masterwork that is Marnie. Hitchcock’s relationship with his new Grace Kelly may have become problematic because she wasn’t Grace Kelly, either way judging by Tippi Hedren’s account, corroborated by others, Hitch treated her appallingly on both films. Hedren was just so much avian fodder, or as James Mason framed it, “one of Hitch’s animated props” in The Birds and had physical and mental scarring from the experience, when Hitchcock put her into the psycho-sexual drama opposite one of the biggest stars of the day, Sean Connery. Hedren says Hitchcock sexually assaulted her and turned on her when his advances were rebuffed, then only speaking to her through a third party and he further threatened to ruin her career, which she claims he did. There is little doubt Hitch was obsessed with the actress and that he tried to ‘possess’ her in a way he had not previously done with his leading ladies, but Hedren resisted saying "He was too possessive and too demanding. I cannot be possessed by anyone.” Either way the Svengali like relationship went from Higgins and Dolittle to poisoned in a short time, and the pair never worked together again. Hedren kept her silence until after Hitchcock’s death about the extent of the troubles, but it’s clear Hitchcock, possibly in the throes of a late mid-life crisis blurred the lines between a producing a film examining and/or pushing the boundaries in portraying cinematic sexual issues and his real life relationship with a close collaborator in that endeavour. The film was not widely embraced, the sexual dimension was thought of at the time as sick and salacious, and to modern sensibilities the rape of Marnie on her honeymoon is hard to defend. The film now has its champions and it certainly holds up with Frenzy as one of Hitch’s late career, flawed gems, but its not for all tastes.

Unlike with Michael Powell and Peeping Tom, Hitchcock continued to work regularly in the late 60’s, making yet another big star vehicle for Paul Newman and Julie Andrews in the muddled spy thriller Torn Curtain, and with Topaz, an equally undistinguished Cold War spy exercise with an international cast, including Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, based on a Leon Uris novel. In 1972 he returned to London and to good form with Frenzy, a serial killer thriller set in the Covent Garden, terrain he knew well as a boy, and this time there was not a big star in sight, admittedly after Michael Caine had turned it down deeming it a little too grubby to play a sex pervert/serial killer.  The film would have been the perfect book-end for Hitchcock’s career but he managed one more California based opus in 1976, the odd but interesting Family Plot, a melding of Old Hollywood in Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman, with the New Hollywood of Bruce Dern and Karen Black. Hitchcock worked on a detailed production for a last spy thriller, but illness forced his retirement from directing and he died in 1980, just a few short years later.

Alfred Hitchcock was a superstar director before any such concept was articulated by an industry that was almost exactly the same age as he was. The French critics of the 1950's categorised Hitch as an auteur, and in all likelihood it was his career that spurned them on to develop the theory and then see who else they could apply it too. Chabrol and Rohmer wrote long dissertations on his work, and Truffaut famously interviewed him in 1962. Hitch was so touched by Truffaut's request he said it brought tears to his eyes, and the idea that his peers would regard him as an artist in his own right rather than just an entertainer with a limited bag of tricks to scare people obviously struck a huge chord. To reduce Hitchcock to being a 'thriller/suspense' director is to underestimate his artistry as he almost single-handedly challenged several Hollywood conventions, the one dimensional villain, the weak woman waiting for the hero to act and save her, and he never made whodunit's, as he found them cheap and obvious, instead he found interest and nuance not in the who, but in the why and the how? 

Alfred Hitchcock bestrode 20th century cinema as a giant, and he put all his fears and intellect and even some perversions on to celluloid for all to see. he was the hero of his own life, a charming rogue who also invented self-promotion for what was essentially a behind the scenes factory worker. For all his flaws and foibles it's safe to say there was and could never be another, he's even a word in the dictionary now, Hitchcock-ian. Not bad for a fat kid from Leytonstone.


 Also Recommended;

The Birds

For Fans Only;

Torn Curtain
I Confess


Best Avoided;