An Introduction to October at Screen Savour
Whether Alfred Hitchcock is cinema's greatest director is a matter very worthy of debate. Certainly he is responsible for many of the medium's most indelible images, and his influence – from his well-crafted and elegant style to his darker psychological themes – has spanned across multiple genres and multiple decades. There are not many directors who so firmly straddle the line of pop entertainment and serious art – John Ford, certainly, but many others are too easily pigeonholed. Few directors are lucky enough to have imitators, and even fewer have imitators while they are still living; Hitchcock had both and an adjective ("Hitchcockian") to go with it. He played the Hollywood studio system and the censors' board like he played his audience, capitalizing on weaknesses to deliver entertainment that sexually suggestive, macabre, sly, and continually impressive. Glimmers of his sharp eye can be found in all his movies, from his masterpieces (he had many) to his failures (he had as many, if not more). His films were made for entertainment, but he would become a central figure in the development of the auteur theory; at a time when it was unpopular to do so, his work would be obsessed over and analyzed by throngs of young writers and intellectuals. His fans are critics, scholars, students, movie lovers, and average viewers. We are still watching him today, and no doubt he will be among the few who are still watched a hundred years from now.
There are many reasons for his success. Raw talent, yes, which needs little expounding. He was surprisingly in sync with audiences, knowing what would interest them, how far to push them, and precisely the right way to tweak the tension to almost unbearable heights. He planned meticulously, often possessing the entire look of a film in his mind as he set out to make it. He wore his obsessions on his sleeve, and they played out so prominently and personally in his films, which were often impeccable on technical levels but flawed on logical ones. Later in his career he became a shrewd businessman; he was financially invested in the success of his films and he developed bizarrely personalized marketing tactics, often playing on his weight (of which he had always been insecure) and his slow and lilting British language. He was an expert at composition, framing, editing, and timing; he worked in suspense like it were a native tongue.
But credit must also go to forces out of his control. Born in 1899, he came of age at the same time filmmaking experienced similar growth. His interest in photography and design drew him to cinema in London, where he worked first as a title-card designer for silent movies before going to Germany in the height of expressionism. His continual interest in the actual process of making movies drove him to experiment and break barriers throughout the length of his entire career. In Britain, he made silent films and his home country's first sound-film. In America, he made films in black-and-white and Technicolor. He experimented in the long-take (Rope and Under Capricorn), claustrophobia (Lifeboat and Rear Window), unreliable narration (Stage Fright), a silent-sound hybrid (Rich and Strange), neorealism (The Wrong Man), the low-budget thriller (Psycho), the black comedy (The Trouble With Harry), the screwball comedy (Mr. & Mrs. Smith), films without traditional scores (The Birds), surrealism (Spellbound), the musical (Waltzes in Vienna), psychological drama (Vertigo and Marnie), and he even perfected the James Bond film before the James Bond franchise even began (North by Northwest).
As a director, he was nothing if not focused. His interest in the darker sides of humans was like a laser in its intensity. He repeated themes and motifs: the wrongfully accused man; the spectacular chase; the disdain for authority; foreboding staircases; sexual impotence; controlling men and submissive women; and private fear in the public sphere, and vice versa. It might be easy to brand this as pure obsession, but arguably Hitchcock re-tooled each theme and it got better as he career progressed. (North by Northwest is a much better film than Saboteur, for example.)
His sheer prolificacy is another reason for his greatness. Throughout his career, Hitchcock directed 53 major films; two prominent short propaganda films; seventeen episodes of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents; one episode each for the television series Suspicion, Startime, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; and served as title designer, art director, editor, co-director, and producer for many other films. When he died in 1980, he had more than a dozen films idling in development.
And still another reason could be that, in addition to his own innate abilities, he surrounded himself with some of the best in the movie business. Some were famous coming when they formed working relationships with Hitchcock; others cut their teeth while following the director. The most famous and obvious are the on-screen collaborations with some of the greatest Hollywood stars of the 1940s and 1950s: Cary Grant and James Stewart (four films each), Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly (three films each). Many others appeared and reappeared in his films, including character actor Leo G. Carroll (who appeared in six of Hitchcock's films), Gregory Peck, Peter Lorre, Joan Fontaine, Farley Granger, Tippi Hedren, and Vera Miles.
On the technical levels, the collaborations were more intense and faithful. In Britain he worked often with writer Eliot Stannard (seven films) and cinematographer Jack Cox (eleven films). In America, the brilliant George Tomasini edited nine Hitchcock films, and the deft Robert Burks served as cinematographer, in both black-and-white and Technicolor, for an astounding twelve. Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin scored four Hitchcock films a piece, and the great Bernard Herrmann – perhaps cinema's greatest composer – wrote the scores for eight Hitchcock films, including the spiraling strings of Vertigo, the running orchestra of North by Northwest, and the shrieking violins of Psycho. Edith Head designed the costumes of eleven of his films; Saul Bass designed the titles for three (and storyboarded the shower scene of Psycho).
Hitchcock returned regularly to tested screenwriters: Charles Bennett (six films); Ben Hecht (three credited, two uncredited); Joan Harrison (four films); John Michael Hayes (four films); James Bridie (three films); Angus MacPhail (two films, two shorts); Hume Cronyn (two films). Robert Boyle and Henry Bumstead served as art directors for four films a piece. Herbert Coleman was an associate producer and assistant director on seven Hitchcock films. And of course, no collaborator list would be complete without mentioning Hitchcock's closest confidant, his wife Alma Reville, who received writing or continuity credit on sixteen of his films (including Shadow of a Doubt) and served as an invaluable and often uncredited counsel in nearly every stage of production, from story selection to the final cut.
Setting aside an entire month for one director may turn out to be highly enjoyable or highly redundant. I suppose we'll see. Other bloggers have set aside a month for Hitchcock – specifically Joe Valdez at The Distracted Globe, who did a 31 Days of Hitchcock exactly one year ago – and I'd be lying if I said I hadn't read their miniature festivals and yearned for the opportunity to do it myself. When I launched Screen Savour in August, I purposefully avoided uploading reviews of any of the Hitchcock's works, knowing full well at the time that I'd want to set aside October (the "scariest" month, so to speak) to do a full retrospective of his films.
I will focus exclusively on his theatrical releases, but I will fall short of the director's complete filmography. There are a few films in his official canon that I have not seen yet, for reasons mostly pertaining to availability, including: The Pleasure Garden (1925), his debut; Downhill (1927); Champagne (1928), a silent comedy; and Juno and the Paycock (1930), an adaptation of the Sean O'Casey play of the same name. (You might say these are among the least "Hitchcockian" of his films, which would explain their limited availability.) Hitchcock's second film, The Mountain Eagle (1926), is considered lost, and his 1931 film Mary is a German language version of Murder! (1930). Hitchcock served as a co-director on Elstree Calling (1930), a musical and comedy revue in a vaudevillian vein, but it is not commonly acknowledged as part of his official canon. And although I have seen the unfinished documentary of the Holocaust that came to be known as Memory of the Camps (1985), on which he worked as a treatment adviser in the mid-1940s, it will not be included because he was not its director. Because I am focusing on theatrical releases, I will not consider any of his television works. However, as long they are not considered lost forever, these films (and the television episodes) will hopefully appear on Screen Savour in the future, depending upon their availability. His remaining 48 feature-length films and 2 short films will get the Screen Savour analysis over the next thirty-one days.
I hope this exploration of Hitchcock is a sufficient encapsulation of my admiration for the director I think of as cinema's greatest. But mostly, of course, I hope you enjoy.
30 September 2008
An Introduction to October at Screen Savour