Over 70 years after his first film, why does Alfred Hitchcock’s name still define suspense?
by Charles L. P. Silet
The Release of Gus Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale of suspense, Psycho, caused a blizzard of reviews, op-ed pieces– many of them surprisingly thoughtful– and complaints about remakes. It’s really not worth debating whether Mr. Van Sant should have re-made Psycho; the fact is that he did re-make it, and because the film is so well-known, it caused considerable comment. That Hitchcock’s most famous film should be this tight, modest, black and white film may in many ways seem strange. However, Hitchcock’s well-known public persona came as the result of his extremely popular American television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which he specialized in “presenting” modest, tightly directed, black and white dramas. Such is fame.
Of course, Hitchcock’s career was much larger than either Psycho or his television show and lasted over fifty years. He helped film to make the transition from silent to sound, encouraged the eclipse of black and white films by color, and directed films which were both accessible to the general movie-going public and of sufficient depth to attract film scholars and critics.
Hitchcock’s career began in Great Britain as a designer of title cards; later he moved to Germany where he served an apprenticeship in the studio system there. Returning to Britain, Hitchcock began directing in earnest. Although he directed or co-directed close to a dozen silent films, The Lodger (1926) stands out as the first truly “Hitchcockian” film. In it he introduced the themes he would explore in greater depth in his later, more famous films. These elements include the more-or-less innocent man caught up in events beyond his control, a female character who provides not only succor but actually aids him in solving the crime of which he was accused, the stylistic flourishes for which he became famous, and even the brief cameos which helped him to become a star among directors.
This early period of his career came to an end with the coming of sound and his remarkable first talkie, Blackmail (1929), a film shot silent and then converted to sound. Hitchcock’s ready grasp of the dramatic and symbolic possibilities of sound are evident in this film. Not only did sound allow the director free play with language and all its nuances but also permitted him to extend the range of his art through expressionistic manipulation of sound effects as in the famous “knife” sequence and in his use of music not only for its psychological enhancement of audience response but also for its symbolic resonance, such as the bleeping car horns signifying a busy urban street, the muted dialogue that enticed and frustrated viewers and engaged them in the unfolding of the story.
During the 1930s Hitchcock established a solid reputation by directing a series of witty, relaxed, well-crafted films for which he became the most recognized of British directors: Murder! (1930), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Most of the films from this period deal directly with the deteriorating political climate in Europe by exploring various forms of international intrigue, and it is probably The 39 Steps (1935), a spy tale based on an updating of a John Buchan pre-war novel, that best sums up this period of his career. Against the spy-story background in the film Hitchcock created a sort of screwball comedy by pitting the characters played by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll against each other in a battle of the sexes, a tension intensified because for a period of the film they are actually handcuffed together. By combining sophisticated humor, the derring-do of an adventure story, and a sly sexuality, Hitchcock established his reputation as a director of more than national interest and by the end of the 1930s he came to the attention of Hollywood.
David O. Selznik invited Hitchcock to come to America to make films for him which began the third, and the most important period of his career. For the next thirty-five years he worked in the United States at a variety of studios and as an independent filmmaker. His first American film was Rebecca (1940) starring Laurence Oliver, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson in an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel. Hitchcock blossomed in the wealthier and more technically sophisticated studio system then at its heyday in Hollywood. As the decade unfolded he directed such masterpieces of suspense as Foreign Correspondent (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (194s), Spellbound (1945). Notorious (1946), and The Paradine Case (1947).
Working with many of the major stars of the period, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Joseph Cotton, Ingrid Bergman, Carol Lombard, and Talula Bankhead Hitchcock’s films exhibited an increasing sophistication in both style and theme. He explored the Psychological more deeply in Spellbound, the universal nature of evil in Shadow of a Doubt, and the central place of the couple in Notorious. He even made a true screwball comedy in the now little seen Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). With Strangers on a Train (1951), based on the Patricia Highsmith suspense novel, he began the most remarkable decade of his career.
Bookended between Strangers on a Train and undoubtedly his most memorable film, Psycho (1960), the 1950s became for Hitchcock his most productive and successful period: Dial “M” for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959). In addition he became famous for his weekly television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with his sardonic brief openings to each episode. Whether directed by himself or others, the television show increased his name recognition and made his profile into a cultural icon. Hitchcock always welcomed innovation in film technology, but in the 1950s he reveled in it. He successfully made the transition to color films and widescreen formats; he experimented with 3-D in Dial “M” for Murder; and he deliberately used his television crew to shoot Psycho to give it the intimate look that he had learned from television. Although Hitchcock never abandoned the themes for which he had become known– the wrong man, the importance of the couple, the ubiquitous of evil, the coy sexuality, the engagement with his audiences– they were examined in more depth, with greater stylistic verve during the 1950s.
Psycho, perhaps his most disturbing and violent film– Janet Leigh who played Marion Crane, continues to insist that she has not taken a shower since– marked in many ways the high point of his career. In the 1960s and 1970s he made fewer films and many critics feel the films of the period reveal a falling off of his talent. Although The Birds (1963) remains popular and Marnie (1964) still has a cult following, most of his later films now seem rather ponderous, perhaps a bit pretentious.
His return to Great Britain in Frenzy (1972), however, his penultimate film, was greeted with much fanfare and warm critical appraisal. Hitchcock had come home once again. His long career came to a close with Family Plot (1976).
By the time Hitchcock died some four years later, he had been properly feted and honored by the public and profession alike, his fame assured as an artist as well as a popular filmmaker. Even today Hitchcock’s films enjoy a popularity beyond most of his contemporaries. In almost any video store in America more space will be given over to his films than any other single director. A small shelf of books has been written about him and his work, and there are a couple of academic journals dedicated to the study of his art. Like “a Proustian moment” and “Kafkaesque,” “Hitchcockian” has invaded the English language as a popular term referring to the humorously macabre or bizarre evil that characterize his films.
And references to Psycho abound. Gus Van Sant’s version of the Hitchcock classic adhered to the original script in ways not usual for Hollywood re-makes, perhaps in part because of the audience’s familiarity with the original. The old Bates mansion is one of the most popular attractions on the Paramount Studio tour. Stationary bearing the letterhead of “The Bates School of Hotel Management” is available from novelty stores, as are numerous different T-shirts. Shower curtains with the knife-wielding silhouette of the murderer printed on them are a mail-order catalog staple. There was even an episode of the popular cartoon televisions show “The Simpsons” which featured a version of the shower scene.
It would be a bit facile to say that Alfred Hitchcock is the world’s best filmmaker, but his films continue to fascinate audiences. This is unusual for past masters of the art, and it may not be too far-fetched to claim that he is the world’s most famous director.
It also is not an exaggeration to claim that his films elevated the medium as a form of art in the minds of the public in ways that exceeded the work of more self-consciously “artistic” directors. And that is not a bad accomplishment for a director who set out merely to entertain.
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on Talking Murder: Interviews with Twenty Crime and Mystery Writers (Ontario Review Press, Fall 1999), a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.