News and Commentary – The Films of Alfred Hitchcock

We recently wrote about Alfred Hitchcock in this essay for the Boston Review, and as it turns out, that experience left us wanting to talk a little bit more about the Master of Suspense.  So we thought we’d give him the full Mid Century Cinema treatment, and offer a modest assessment and career overview, culminating with our invariably-beloved, inherently-contestable, always-subject-to-revision user’s guide to his feature films.  

Hitchcock initially learned his craft in the silent cinema of the twenties, including a crucial stint working in Germany where he schooled, firsthand, in the visual expressionism associated with the celebrated Weimar cinema of the period. Starting out in silent film was also an advantage, since one needed to be able to communicate ideas through images rather than words—that is, to express ideas through the distinct medium of film.  Additionally, even in these early films, most notably The Lodger (1927), some of the themes that would dominate his entire oeuvre were present, in particular guilt and its transference. Famous for many of his “double chase” scenarios (a man, falsely accused of a crime, is pursued by the police while he must desperately-on-the-run attempt to unmask the true villains—you know, like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive), the director was at the same time digging more deeply. Hitchcock’s double-chase films (and most of his others) added this twist: our hero might be innocent of the crime he is accused of, but he is guilty of some existential sin (Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, for example, is guilty of living a shallow and purposeless life.)

With the first British sound picture, Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock left behind the silent cinema, but not his mastery of its techniques, and in the sound era his movies were distinguished by his virtuoso facility for visual storytelling. The best moments in a Hitchcock film are usually extended, suspenseful sequences in which the camera does all the talking.  And suspense is the key word: as developed in his English talkies (the period many consider to be his finest), Hitchcock, as he would tell countless interviewers, was not interested in “surprise”—a bomb suddenly exploding, but rather suspense—letting the audience know that a bomb under the table is set to explode in the not-too distant future.

In the 1930s Hitchcock established himself as one of the greatest formal stylists in the history of film—though it should be acknowledged, possibly as a consequence of that commitment to form, that his was not an actor’s cinema. Many great actors appear in Hitchcock films, and certainly countless players deliver excellent performances. But in general Hitchcock favored what he called “negative acting” – emotions withdrawn, like a smile disappearing from a face – an approach rooted in the Kuleshov effect, in which the actors’ expressions are only understandable in the context of the images that follow. Rear Window – possibly our favorite Hitch – is a virtual clinic in this craft. 

In the thirties Hitchcock also sought the attention of Hollywood—successfully, reaching a contract with mogul David O Selznick, and moving to America in 1940. For the following decade, he would work within the studio system (although Hitchcock only made three films officially for Selznick International, he was under contract to the producer for eight years) and then would follow that with a dozen glorious years as his own man—an independent producer. On top of the world in the 1950s Hitchcock was beloved as crowd-pleasing entertainer in America—and revered as a cinematic master by the French film critics who would go on to forge the Nouvelle Vague. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol published the first serious book about Hitchcock’s films and a few years later Truffaut’s Hitchcock book would be something of an event. And The Master’s influence showed up on the screen as well, most obviously in films like The Soft Skin (Truffaut 1964) and The Unfaithful Wife (Chabrol 1969).   

But despite the hero-worship of the New Wave, Hitchcock would not be allowed to participate in its American incarnation. Inspired by the Europeans, and with the emergence of the New Hollywood, Hitchcock set out make a film very different from anything he had done before, shooting forty minutes of test footage for a murder story featuring location work, natural light, and a young, unknown cast. A complete draft script was developed which Hitchcock shared with Truffaut, who saw “numerous fascinating scenes throughout,” and added, “If I can be of any possible help . . . do not hesitate to ask.” But ultimately the great director could not secure studio backing for the project, which just didn’t sound like a Hitchcock film. Unfortunately, the Hitchcock films of the late sixties looked a bit too much like old Hitchcock films, and not in a good way (though the mixed bag that is Topaz, featuring Michel Piccoli, Philippe Noiret and Roscoe Lee Brown, has, as Vincent Canby praised, a number of “beautifully composed sequences”).  He would rebound in the 1970s, with the return-to-form Frenzy (1972) and the watchable, well-cast Family Plot (1976).  But it would have been nice to see what Hitchcock – an ambitious, experimental filmmaker for five decades – would have done with his own New Wave film.

 

The Feature Films of Alfred Hitchcock: A User's Guide:

 (Note as always we follow a version of the Halliwell system: stars are not ratings, but designations of merit.  Which also means that there can be good things and often striking sequences in an un-starred film, but as a whole we did not find the movie worthy of special attention or urgent recommendation.  Moreover, as with our recent Bergman list, if not for the expectations established by his twenty best efforts, some of the more “minor” films would probably be valued more highly.)

The Pleasure Garden (1925) NS

The Mountain Eagle (1926) NS

The Lodger (1927) *

Downhill (1928)

Easy Virtue (1928) 

The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

Champagne (1928) NS

The Manxman (1929)

Blackmail (1929) *

Lodger

The Lodger

 

Juno and the Paycock (1930)

Murder (1930)

The Skin Game (1931)

Rich and Strange (1932) *

Number Seventeen (1932) *

Waltzes From Vienna (1933)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) **

Man 1

The Man Who Knew Too Much

 

The 39 Steps (1935) ***

Secret Agent (1936) *

Sabotage (1936) *

Young and Innocent (1937)

The Lady Vanishes (1938) **

Jamaica Inn (1939)

39 Steps

The 39 Steps

 

Rebecca (1940) *

Foreign Correspondent (1941) **

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Suspicion (1941)

Saboteur (1942)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) **

Lifeboat (1944) ***

lifeboat 

Lifeboat

 

Spellbound (1945) **

Notorious (1946) ***

The Paradine Case (1947)

Rope (1948) *

Notorious

Notorious

 

Under Capricorn (1949)

Stage Fright (1950) *

Strangers on a Train (1951) **

I Confess (1952) *

Strangers

Strangers on a Train

 

Dial M For Murder (1953) *

Rear Window (1954) ***

To Catch a Thief (1955)

The Trouble with Harry (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) *

Rear Window

Rear Window

 

The Wrong Man (1957) *

Vertigo (1958) ***

North by Northwest (1959) **

Psycho (1960) ***

The Birds (1963) *

Psycho

Psycho

 

Marnie (1964)

Torn Curtain (1966)

Topaz (1969)

Frenzy (1972)

Family Plot (1976)