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The Inescapable Alfred Hitchcock

The Inescapable Alfred Hitchcock

The cinematic achievements of the Master of Suspense remain vivid a century after they began.

Michael Mandelbaum

One hundred years ago, twenty-one-year-old Alfred Hitchcock, the son of an East London grocer, entered the motion picture industry. He took a job with the London office of an American movie production company, Famous Players-Lasky, as a designer of “intertitles”—the story and dialogue cards that appeared in silent films. Thus began what became the most famous, the most celebrated, the most influential, and the most widely studied career in the history of filmmaking.

Alfred Hitchcock died in 1980, but his prominence has endured. In 2012 there appeared two feature-length films about him—one on television and the other released in theaters. In 2018 a widely cited poll in the film journal Sight and Sound voted his 1958 film Vertigo the best of all time, displacing the longtime selection for that position in its periodic surveys, Citizen Kane (1941) by Orson Welles. Almost certainly more has been written about Hitchcock than about any other director. Edward White’s The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspensethe latest book and a very good one—lists in its bibliography no fewer than fifty-eight others devoted to him. What accounts for his continued—indeed in some ways his increasing—eminence a full four decades after his passing?

Hitchcock had an unprecedentedly long and productive career. In the fifty years between 1926 and 1976 he made fifty-three films. His career spanned the major eras of the moving image: silent films, sound pictures, color movies, and television. He left his mark on each one. Moreover, he took pains to promote himself. He made cameo appearances in all of his films. One of the pleasures of watching each new one was trying to spot his brief moment on the screen. A line sketch of his portly profile adorned the title image of the television series that bore his name, which ran from 1955 to 1965. He introduced each of the half-hour episodes, although he directed only a few himself. He lent his name to a magazine as well. In contemporary parlance, he turned himself into a brand. By the end of the 1950s, White writes, Hitchcock “was one of the most famous men in America.”

Hitchcock’s mass celebrity has now faded, and his enduring fame comes from the films that he made. His towering reputation rests in no small part on the fact that, in an inherently collaborative medium, with what the director puts on the screen subject to the whims of the studio executives who are paying for it, he exercised an unusual degree of control over his films. He plotted in detail every scene and camera angle of his movies and seldom deviated from his plan. In the 1950s a group of French movie enthusiasts associated with the journal Cahiers du Cinema developed the concept of the auteur: the single person responsible for a particular film. For them, Hitchcock epitomized the concept and their appreciation of his work enhanced his reputation in the United States as well as in Europe. One of them, François Truffaut, himself the accomplished director of such films as The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962), conducted a series of interviews with Hitchcock over several days in 1962, an edited transcript of which was subsequently published in book form.

What Truffaut and his colleagues most admired, what distinguishes Hitchcock from other directors, is his ability to make full use of the medium in which he was working by telling a story in images. No one has ever done it more successfully. Many films look like Hitchcock movies because they include techniques that he either invented or pioneered. One example is the practice of having the camera start by photographing a broad vista from a great distance or height and then making it zoom in to focus on something small, concrete, and discrete, thereby both situating and highlighting it. Truffaut called this “from the farthest to the nearest.” The technique can be seen, for example, in the opening shot of Miami in Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996) and of the CIA in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008).

Hitchcock films have dialogue, of course, but he operated on the principle, as he told Truffaut, that “when we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” There is scarcely a single memorable line of dialogue in his films, but many memorable images: the spy played by Norman Lloyd suspended from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942); the seven-minute sequence, unburdened by dialogue, in North by Northwest (1959), in which a small crop duster airplane pursues Cary Grant through a cornfield; and perhaps the most famous and probably the most shocking of his moving images, in Psycho (1960), in which Janet Leigh is stabbed to death in a shower. That list is by no means exhaustive.

Such scenes have become, over the years, the equivalents of iconic paintings, such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Picasso’s Guernica. The Hitchcock images resemble, as well, famous quotations from literature—“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859), to cite but two examples—in that they have taken on lives of their own in the wider culture, outside their original contexts.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock do not, of course, consist purely of striking images. He was no slouch at creating characters, although the most interesting ones tend to be villains: Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train (1951), James Mason in North by Northwest, and (spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen Psycho) Anthony Perkins. The films also have themes, of several different kinds. He became commonly known, including in the subtitle of White’s book, as “the Master of Suspense,” which, as Hitchcock explained to Truffaut, differs from surprise:

Let us suppose there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ The public is surprised.… Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it.… The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is quarter to one.

“In the first case,” he continued, “we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.”

A vivid example of Hitchcockian suspense comes in the scene that takes place in the Royal Albert Hall in London in both of the versions he made (the first in 1934 in England, the second in 1956 in the United States) of The Man Who Knew Too Much. An orchestra is playing a cantata—The Storm Clouds by Arthur Benjamin—and the audience knows that, at the moment when the score calls for a loud clash of cymbals, an assassin will shoot a visiting statesman in the audience. As the moment approaches, the feelings of suspense rise steadily.

Two of the later Hitchcock films, Psycho and The Birds (1963), qualify as horror movies, for horror is what their most powerful scenes evoke. Several of his works, however, are romantic comedies as well as suspenseful thrillers. The initial encounters of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935), Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938), Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (1955), and Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest all take place in awkward circumstances, and at first the couples dislike each other; but over the course of the film, and through the dangers they must confront together, true love wins out.

Along with suspense, horror, and romance, Hitchcock movies depict cinematically another basic human sentiment, and do so better than any other filmmaker has done: anxiety. Donat in The 39 Steps, Grant in North by Northwest, James Stewart and Doris Day in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and other characters in Hitchcock movies find themselves in a world whose physical features are familiar but in which they are buffeted by sinister forces that they do not understand and cannot control. Their world has suddenly and unexpectedly become both baffling and frightening. They have, somehow, to navigate their way to safety in a threatening environment.

This is the stuff of nightmares, and Hitchcock evokes them vividly. Truffaut observes at the end of their series of interviews:

It might be said that the texture of your films is made up of three elements: fear, sex, and death. These are not daytime preoccupations, like in films that deal with unemployment, racism, poverty, or in the many pictures on everyday love conflicts between men and women. These are night time anxieties, therefore, metaphysical anxieties.

Hitchcock’s fundamental subjects are the distressing feelings that human beings, no matter how successfully they repress them when awake, cannot escape in their sleep. That is why, one hundred years after he began and forty years after he died, Alfred Hitchcock’s films remain, in their way, inescapable.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and author of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (2019).

On Screen