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On April 29, 1980, the world lost director Alfred Hitchcock. 40 years later his legacy – a career that spanned six decades with over 50 feature films – still vibrates through modern cinema. He is to date the most studied filmmaker in the history of film and remains familiar to cinema audiences due to cameos in his own projects.
Above everything else Hitchcock was a storyteller, concerned with how his audience would view his movies. He once claimed that “If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” His focus on cinematic visuals stems from his origins in silent film such as his directorial debut in 1925, the British-German silent film The Pleasure Garden – a moderate success which included elements of what would follow in his later outings.
Hitchcock was not only the master of suspense. He was also highly invested in the emotional and psychological aspects of his work, something he achieved through visual storytelling. He worked to ensure that even the most casual viewer would become entangled in the on-screen anxieties of the protagonist. Taking five of the best movies from his canon, this article considers examples of the different methods he developed and stylishly executed, demonstrating why Hitchcock remains so significant to this very day.
A film which originally opened to mixed reviews but over time has grown gracefully in stature, Vertigo follows Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), a police detective who is forced to retire after his crippling fear of heights leads to the death of a policeman. Soon after he is hired by an acquaintance to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Scottie soon falls in love with the beautiful and self-destructive woman who may-or-may-not be possessed by a tragic great grandmother. After she commits suicide, jumping off a bell tower, he decides to remake and remodel a lady in the image of Madeleine.
This act of creation is similar to the act of movie making, reflecting Hitchcock’s own need to perfectly sculpt a character. The visual power of Vertigo comes from how Hitchcock arranges characters and objects, and how they appear in the framework. Here, characters are shown in spatial configurations, explaining more of what is going on in the story without having to use dialogue. Also backdrops of colour add to the theme, mood and in this case the narrative. These combinations help audiences dive into the film’s dreamlike story.
Rear Window (1954)
There is very little overall to Rear Window. No exotic locations, no vast landscapes or scenes outside a confined area. On the surface it should not act or look as well as it does, though it’s that claustrophobic world inside an apartment complex that holds the magic. Rear Window is the story of L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), a photographer who becomes wheelchair bound due to a broken leg. As his world has gotten smaller, his main pastime becomes spying on his adjacent neighbour’s from his apartment window. One day he becomes convinced one of those neighbours, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. From his crippled state, Jeff enlists his girlfriend Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) and housekeeper Stella (Thelma Ritter) to help him find out the truth.
This claustrophobic thriller is of great importance. The gripping storyline is revealed to the audience at the same time as the protagonist, adding a sense of immediacy. In some respects, it can be said both develop a relationship under the same spell of suspense – with Jeff’s voyeurism a metaphor for the act of watching movies. It is voyeurism defined through the use of voyeurism, with Rear Window the ultimate reflection of what cinema really is.
This is perhaps Hitchcock’s most famous outing. It might not be his best but it is still unnerving to this day thanks to its deep dive into the murderous mind and how well the director could portray it. Released 60 years ago, Psycho dispensed with colour, with Hitchcock shooting on grainy gritty black and white. The story is that of an on-the-run secretary, Marion (Janet Leigh). Who after stealing $40,000 from her boss, decides to hide out at a motel. It is here she meets quirky loner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who runs the motel with his unseen mother.
Unfortunately Marion comes to an untimely end 30 minutes in, stabbed to death while taking a shower. That scene alone – dispensing of who viewers perceived as the main character – shocked audiences of the time. This is even before Hitchcock has those watching conflicted between feeling sympathy and disgust for the character of Norman Bates.
When it comes to style, Psycho is the best example of how its filmmaker uses music to build tension. After all, a great score can make a scene unforgettable and of course the finest example of this is the aforementioned shower scene – Bernard Herrmann’s sharp orchestral strings symbolising the stabs of a blade.
Based on a play by novelist Patrick Hamilton, Rope tells the story of university students John Dall (Brandon Shaw) and Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan) who strangle a former classmate to death and hide him in their apartment. In a show of arrogance they invite the deceased’s friends and family around for a dinner party. Though one guest, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), becomes aware of the goings-on.
This adaptation is the director’s first technicolor picture, but more importantly the movie acts as if it’s a play presented on a cinema screen. Hitchcock was not only on top of his game at this point, he was also ahead of his time. Rope is one of the finest examples of editing in cinema history. A series of unbroken scenes strung together to resemble one long take, the technique amps up the tension – making it appear the scenario is playing out in real time. Without Rope, there would be no Birdman or 1917.
North By Northwest (1959)
In many ways North By Northwest is the perfect example of Hitchcock providing audiences with unadulterated entertainment. The movie follows protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), an advertising executive who becomes embroiled in a web of spies and deceit after a case of mistaken identity.
Lacking the darker more psychological elements Hitchcock’s movies often featured, North By Northwest instead becomes ground zero for the action thriller – all of course aided by the script by Ernest Lehman (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). The latter provided a playground of locations for Hitchcock to shoot this thrilling story. From the infamous crop duster cornfield chase to the perilous climb down Mount Rushmore, the filmmaker took a nail-biting script, and turned it into his most enjoyable epic.