When film professors vote Hitchcock the best director for teaching they are only recognising the way he worked. No director more thoroughly conceived his pictures in advance, and designed them as storyboards. And so Hitch often confessed that there was, for him, an inescapable tedium in shooting itself. (The master of surprise – but without surprise himself!). He knew the thing would work; he had tested it all in advance, in his mind’s eye. That’s one reason why the notion got around that he regarded actors as cattle. But storyboarding is more formative than that. It permits the intense, acute and essentially unnatural (or unexpected) angling of his shots. For Hitch saw psychologically and in terms of plot suspense, and very seldom naturalistically, or as an onlooker or participant. The edifice of angles at its best is watertight – and airless. There is a stylistic claustrophobia that comes from so few shots ever seeming ordinary, casual or other than decisive. So Hitch loves odd, spectacular locations, but has scant feeling for real places: he needed locations, decor, angles, mise-en-scène, and instead of people he saw characters or figures in the design.
In and out
The diagrammatics lead to erotics, as Hitchcock establishes some much-desired but mysterious or perilous vortex towards which a searcher is drawn. This can be Rebecca’s room, preserved after her death, and so lit as to seem under water – will Joan Fontaine’s “I” and eye get there? It is the hallowed light around Madeleine, mist before mystery, that beckons James Stewart and builds his infatuation in Vertigo. Gradually, in America, Hitch worked out a style for filming this compelling attraction. It was cross-cut tracking shots at first, moving forward towards the place (as if from the searcher’s POV), and backing off in front of the forward movement. A fine example comes in Psycho, when Vera Miles resolves to search the Bates house and find the old lady. But in that case the ploy is merely (and very) suspenseful. Hitch had an extra refinement – the two at once, tracking in and zooming out. That effect of giddiness or madness comes notably in Vertigo and Marnie. In and out: it is sexual, of course, as well as spatially contradictory, and it is the song of a man obsessed with looking at things, and trying to get into them, to possess them – even if they are as flat as back projections. But from Rear Window through Vertigo to Psycho, Hitch pursued the passion of the voyeur entering his own inscape.
Up and down
Hitchcock depends on a vertical scale, from being inches above Barbara Bel Geddes’ hooded, hurt eyes (as Stewart says it wasn’t he who ended their engagement) in Vertigo, to the sudden sky shot of Cary Grant bolting out of the UN building to flee murder, in North by Northwest. There are The Birds over Bodega Bay and smoke above nearby Santa Rosa in Shadow of a Doubt. But the vertiginous spectacle often has moral, redemptive force, too (as when Grant guides Bergman down the stairs, to freedom, with the helpless complicity of Claude Rains in Notorious). This may seem just an acute way of dramatising things, but then recall the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur), Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest), the house above the motel (Psycho) – plus the stairs on which Arbogast falls and the camera that cranes up high to show (and hide) his killer, not to mention the knife going up and down. Thus, Vertigo and its victim live in San Francisco, the steepest of American cities, the most masochistic home for that neurosis, where anyone coming up the hill can look like Grant in Suspicion bearing the burning uncertainty of milk.
If the storyboard has foreseen everything, then it has also edited the film in advance (and the sound); and the very eccentricity of many Hitchcock angles (Vertigo) is punched home (and made coherent) by the cut that launches them. It has always been a part of Hitch’s approach that conversations were criss-cross, interrogatory constructions, veering from one close up to another. The famous shower assemblage from Psycho, of so many details and their dynamic arrangement, was apparent 25 years earlier in the knife scene from Sabotage. Most fascinatingly, this cross-cutting dynamic becomes a plot motif: the notion of chance encounter leading to murder-swapping in Strangers on a Train; the haphazard intersection of Stewart’s bored eyes and so many courtyard stories in Rear Window, the way in which the second ‘Madeleine’ comes walking down a San Francisco street in Vertigo; and the momentary congruence of a break in the rain and Norman’s forgetting to turn off the sign that lets the harried Marion Crane see the words “Bates Motel”.
Everything is sharp or pointed in Hitchcock, from the wordplay of Norman Bates (“Mother isn’t quite herself today”) to the blades and agricultural tools in the store where Sam Loomis works. There are knives that impel action, like the one that joins the Verlocs in marriage in Sabotage (and the “knife” that jumps out of the Blackmail soundtrack like a knife-in-a-box); and there are the beaks of The Birds that prick and penetrate Tippi Hedren until she is nearly catatonic, and yielding. But Hitch was a man of hushed violence. He does not much like guns, preferring hands-on weapons, like Rope (such a mark of attachment), and the intimacy of strangling, where killed and killer can see eye-to-eye. In Rebecca, a hand-stroking lingerie is as menacing as a knife; in Dial M for Murder, scissors are at hand; in Torn Curtain, a gas oven becomes the final solution for human removal. But even then, nothing matches the sharpness or the damage of looking: for Hitch is such a believer in murderous glances and looks that could kill. In Rear Window, it’s watching that not just guesses murder, but conjures it; and it’s Raymond Burr’s seeing us that prompts climax. Then flashbulbs are the weapon of last resort.
There are things in Hitchcock that become emblems, nearly as potent as the faces that wait for the things to explode, bloom or be discovered. They are objects, portable usually, domestic and humdrum, clues, the little bit of materiality that attracts the camera: a glass of milk in Suspicion; the blonde bag the colour of the thief’s hair in Marnie; the slip of paper on which Marion Crane does an amateur thief’s elementary sum in Psycho, not quite flushed away; jewels that go off like fireworks in To Catch a Thief; the cigarette lighter and the striving hand that reaches for it in Strangers on a Train; the incriminating locket of Carlotta Valdez in Vertigo, seen at Judy Barton’s throat; the long lens and the plaster cast – sleeping hard-ons looking for action – in Rear Window. It is a method like that of Magritte – to gaze on common objects until they pulse with dream’s radiation.
Funny ha ha/ funny peculiar
Hitchcock liked to be a starch-faced humorist, the fat boy striving to mask a naughty grin, a solemn devotee of dirty jokes, double entendres and that icy discord in things that is not so much amusing as disquieting and revelatory. So it is typical lewd Hitch to have Grace Kelly wonder whether Cary Grant would prefer a leg or a breast, and for the startled woman in the hospital bed to beg the passing Grant, “Don’t go,” in North by Northwest. The crop-duster that becomes kamikaze is as droll as the idea of hiding in Jefferson’s nostril in Mount Rushmore. It makes us laugh in Strangers on a Train to see Robert Walker as fixed as the net at the tennis match while all other heads swivel from end to end. But the joke is sometimes disconcerting – like the cigarette extinguished in a fried egg in To Catch a Thief, or the slaughter by cuisine in Frenzy. And there is only macabre melancholy in the Norman Bates who believes that stuffing birds is the sort of hobby a boy should have. Norman is a post-modernist sit-down comic – staring us in the eye at the end – someone who knows what a drag the whole act is, but can’t keep those flat jokes out of his patter, or a gentle swish from his walk. Laugh, if you dare.
Consider that eight of Hitch’s US films are set all or partly in England, and then note how often in Hollywood he used English or “English” players: Olivier, Fontaine, Grant, Rains, Herbert Marshall, George Sanders, James Mason, Julie Andrews, all the way down to Leo G. Carroll, Nigel Bruce and Tom Helmore’s Gavin Elster in Vertigo, a suave ghost from London’s clubland. And don’t forget that tweedy lady ornithologist in The Birds who (25 years later) is a figure from his cosy, pretty, vicious England of the 30s. But in those days Hitch had always loved to kid English stereotypes: Caldicott and Charters worrying about cricket in The Lady Vanishes, the nearly Dickensian city of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the bright young Shaftesbury Avenue-ness of his heroes and heroines. This was less English realism than the mixed up respect and mickey-taking of a lowly cockney. And then Alfred carried “Englishness” and The Times with him to Hollywood, keeping the dream going well past the era of Labour government and angry young men. How many truly mainstream American players did he use in Hollywood? Doris Day? Janet Leigh? Psycho is the only film that knows and conveys the authentic, spacey dangerousness of America.
Motif becomes motive in the great stress on one character rescuing another, the area in which redemption and sentiment mingled for Hitch – at least for a while. Thus in Psycho, say, there is a sweet but finally tragic hint that Norman and Marion (in that hesitant, over-sandwiches conversation of theirs) could be each other’s salvation. In Vertigo, Scottie wants to save Madeleine; and then he wants Judy to sacrifice herself to his own order and the old dream. In the end, he helps destroy both women. In North by Northwest, Grant extricates Eva Marie Saint from her plight, and holds her from falling, but she also saves him from his frivolous playboy life. In the same way, in Notorious, Grant finally rescues Bergman from the hell to which he has consigned her. It is a measure of Hitch’s progress that over the years the rescue theme goes from happy ending (Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious, Under Capricorn) to conclusions that are increasingly disastrous (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, Mamie). For the more deeply Hitch looks into his material, the less hopeful he lets us feel.
In I Confess, policeman Karl Malden’s face peers round the head he is talking with to spy Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter together outside the house where murder has occurred. Suspicion begins with the visible and can hardly ever out-think it. In The Wrong Man, all the witnesses believe Fonda is the right man when he only looks like the thief. Hitchcock’s narrow, doctrinaire approach to cinema – that it must be a visual art – was at the same time purist and limiting; his great strength, and obsession, left so much out. And so for decades, his movies turned on seeing and being seen, until in Rear Window he at last found a way to make watching, and its needy impulse, voyeurism, his subject. Thereafter his films became greater, and far more troubled: his misanthropy floods the imagery, and watchfulness becomes a metaphor for cruelty and even madness. In Vertigo, Stewart never takes his eyes off Novak – and his eyes are like a molester’s hands – yet in his concentration he never quite sees or recognises her. And by Psycho, the schizophrenia of Norman/Mother is all focused on our watching: “I hope that they are watching, they will see, they will see, and they will say, ‘Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.’” This is the skull beneath the face of ‘visual art’.
The perfect crime
The one thing capable of perfection in Hitch’s world – apart from the executed storyboard – is crime. So many of his characters are in love with intelligence and the attempt to impose a plot on life. In Rope, Farley Granger and John Dall play the classical enquirers after an artistic murder. In Strangers on a Train, their brilliant offspring has a magnificent idea for successful murder that depends on harnessing chance: you do a stranger’s murder, he does yours – so there can be no tracing of motive, that human giveaway. I Confess turns on a murder that achieves perfection once it has been confessed – for the confessor then becomes the chief suspect. Vertigo is especially acute: it has a perfect crime (the killer, Gavin Elster, does go free); but to combat the web in which he is a fly, private eye Scottie makes another, inner web that kills all his love. And time and again, those seekers of perfection are not simply baddies. They earn our interest, our sympathy, and we begin to see how they resemble their designer, Hitch.
I am innocent, I am sane
At first, Hitch saw the fun and predicament of a man wrongfully accused, a fugitive trying to prove his innocence, caught between the police and the criminals (and not always sure which is which): The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and North by Northwest. Margaret Lockwood became the innocent trying to convince a sceptical world about a crime she has seen (or guessed at) in The Lady Vanishes. Joel McCrea had similar difficulty persuading dumb authorities to appreciate evil in Foreign Correspondent. In Spellbound, Gregory Peck has to masquerade as a psychiatrist to avoid murder charges. In Rear Window, Stewart has to convince a dry cop that he has seen a killing, but his own sensationalism is a kind of crime, too. The Wrong Man is the bleakest version of the idea: for though the forlorn Henry Fonda does find vindication, his wife has lost her mind. And then it is up to James Stewart to prove his sanity, his rightness, his imperviousness to heights, in Vertigo. Innocence becomes so much harder to maintain, and so much more theoretical.
I am fearful
There is a recurring shot in Hitchcock – the face, the eyes widening in horror and realisation. No one else spent so much time filming fear or seeking to inflict it on audiences. Think of Janet Leigh in the car, confronting the patrolman: “I didn’t intend to sleep all night! I just pulled over. Have I broken any laws?” That nagging question goes back to young Fred’s boyhood shock when (“for five or ten minutes”) his father had him locked up in a police cell. It is the dread that afflicts The Wrong Man, that even hard-up decency can be so fatally intruded on that it is never the same again. There is Tippi Hedren’s gaze, dying before our eyes, as birds attack her. Joan Fontaine, startled by Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, is so afraid of doing something wrong. Is there any greater terror than being found out? So Tippi Hedren’s unease at holding one bird in its cage is the first hint of total neurotic wipe-out. And Leigh’s constant head-on ordeal of being seen is the overture to that dead, open eye on the bathroom floor.
I am fearless
Several categories of character ignore Hitchcock’s pervasive climate of fear. Some are deranged: Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (she has her religion); Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (too set on the working out of his game); Peter Lorre in the two English movies is a villain sustained by a connoisseur’s viciousness. Some are so old, so wise, so wicked or such road-sign figures that they are beyond fear, the highway patrol man in Psycho (the cop as dark glasses); James Mason in North by Northwest, a virtuoso of refinement; Charles Laughton in The Paradine Case, Sean Connery in Marnie (who may be as dotty as his wife). Some are so commonplace, so stupid, so steadfast in the ordinariness that Hitchcock despises: Nigel Bruce in anything; the Santa Rosa folks in Shadow of a Doubt, and especially Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers in their burrowing taste for macabre murder stories; Dr Richmond who can explain everything at the end of Psycho; and that army of oblivious passers-by personified by Hitch himself, solemn-faced, tubby figures, not a thought in their head. Plus Montgomery Clift in I Confess, that rare thing in Hitchcock, a solidly felt, decent, brave man, and real acting.
Be a lovely, cool torment
She is there first as Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) in The 39 Steps, a blonde looker whose desirability is turned to mockery because the man is handcuffed to her. So, though there’s no ladder, his hands rise with hers up all those steps, when she takes her stockings off. Hence that infatuated, vengeful way of gazing at lovelies. It’s something that affects Bergman in her films (that long, nearly surgical kiss in Notorious and her required sluttishness). But it’s full force with Grace Kelly in her bridal-look nightdress in Dial M for Murder, that oddly sexual killing. Kelly gets the worshipping treatment in Rear Window, a beauty lowering her head into the camera for a kiss. Then, while making To Catch a Thief, the Hitchcock blonde met her real prince (and left the toad stranded). So Hitch was in need of a re-make. Surely, in Vertigo, Novak’s Madeleine – impossibly remote, beautiful and classy – is the Kelly girl that the real Novak could never be; and Judy Barton is a lowly, rather coarse creature to remind Novak of herself. Isn’t that behind the stricken pathos of her performance? And isn’t the ghost of Kelly what helps us read the saint in Eva Marie in North by Northwest? But all is preparation for the stripping and humiliation of Tippi Hedren in her two films. Not a pretty progress.
Must I be in this family?
Mothers have such problems: at the end Mrs Bates knows she should have put Norman away years ago before he could tell such tales about her; Jessica Tandy and Tippi Hedren in The Birds are engaged in a subtle struggle for command; and it is mother who limps through Marnie’s life, trauma personified. Family life is such a mess in Hitchcock. Bruno Anthony has a terrible time with his parents: he wants Dad dead, and Mum sent off somewhere to concentrate on her loony paintings. So many husbands need to kill their wives (Dial M, Rear Window, Frenzy, Vertigo). One wife has left her husband haunted (Rebecca); another may leave him to be hanged (Suspicion). Mrs Verloc kills her husband in Sabotage. In The Paradine Case a marriage falls apart as a barrister loves the murderess he is defending. And in Rear Window, Grace Kelly is trying so hard to marry Stewart – the wedding ring, look!, the ring on my finger – in a story about murderous marriage. Indeed, there is only one happy marriage in Hitchcock – Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Let me suffer
Is it the necessary reaction to a certain sadism in the director, or a latent guilt that deserves mortification? There is a line of people in Hitchcock ready for pain and suffering. This basic pessimism lets Vera Miles’ wife sink into melancholy in The Wrong Man – maybe the most unsettling moment in all of Hitchcock’s work. In Under Capricorn Ingrid Bergman is so set on self-torture that it surely helped kill the picture at the box office. In Rebecca, “I” is predisposed to be the victim and depressive that Mrs Danvers seeks to play upon. In I Confess, to be a priest is to be trapped in silent peril and frustrated love. In Vertigo, Kim Novak is one gorgeous, sustained sigh at the wound of a woman who cannot live up to her looks. And in Psycho, the morbid Norman has taken on one touch too many of his vengeful mother. Bates may be the modern screen’s first great depressive. As for Marnie, can we ever believe she will find peace or happiness?
All is loathsome
As early as Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, there are unburiable hints that this consummate entertainer fears the world. People are venal and stupid; they deserve what they get. This feeling mounts in Bruno Anthony’s disdain for the regular world; in the ugly Quebec mob that threatens Montgomery Clift in I Confess; and in the survey of others’ pettiness in Rear Window. But morbidity takes firmer hold in The Wrong Man and Vertigo, and sinks deeper in Psycho, a film of squalid city and treacherous backroads, crowded with nasty scavengers (think of the office where Marion Crane works), and so enlisting us in the grilling of Marion (unremitting inspection – voyeurism unleashed) that her murder surely rewards our arousal. Norman Bates (the madman), like Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, has all the great lines about hypocrisy and heartlessness in the world, and it is easy to conclude that those killers and outsiders speak for Hitch. In The Birds, the world has apparently earned its end (made in 1962, the year of Cuban missiles). In Frenzy, he returns to an old England (and the greengrocery trade) and finds it odious. As Hitch matures, and improves, he finds less and less to trust.
13 August 1899 Alfred Joseph Hitchcock is born at 517 High Road, Leytonstone, above his father’s greengrocery shop; Irish, Catholic roots on his mother’s side of the family; the third and youngest child; working-class and cockney; his parents call him ‘Fred’; he is ‘Cocky’ at school; a loner and a watcher, he plays on his own and loves transport timetables
1907 Family moves to Poplar; he attends the Howard House Convent
1909 Family moves to Stepney; he attends Saint Ignatius College, a Jesuit school (until 1913). He is “a lonely fat boy who smiled and looked at you as if he could see straight through you”
1913 Ends regular education, but takes evening classes in navigation and electrical mechanics; begins reading widely on his own, and attends the theatre
1914 His father dies
1915 Employed by the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company – more evening classes
1918 Still reading and drawing, begins to write stories; never goes out with girls; despite War, no military service (over-weight?)
1920 Gets a job at the new London office of Famous Players-Lasky, designing titles
1922 Directs an unfinished film, Number Thirteen; completes the picture Always Tell Your Wife; meets Michael Balcon; is assistant director and scriptwriter and does art direction on Woman to Woman, on which he meets Alma Reville
1923 Works for Balcon on The White Shadow
1924 Visits Germany and the UFA studios: observes Murnau at work, but is more influenced by Fritz Lang, from whom he will often borrow in the 30s
1925 Directs The Pleasure Garden at Balcon’s suggestion (Balcon will go on to produce The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps)
1926 Marries Alma Reville. (Did he ever sleep with another woman?). Makes The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog (with Ivor Novello)
1928 Birth of only child, daughter, Patricia (who will act in Stage Fright, Strangers on a Train, Psycho)
1929 Blackmail, first sound film: screenplay involves Charles Bennett (who will work on The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, The Secret Agent, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, Foreign Correspondent)
1935 Hires Joan Harrison, initially as secretary; she becomes his adored right-hand woman and a rival to Alma (she will be credited on Jamaica Inn, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion, Saboteur, and will become associate producer on the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents)
1938 The Lady Vanishes, a huge success; first visit to the US with Alma and Joan
1939 In Hollywood enters into uneasy contract with David O. Selznick; weighs 365 lbs
1940 Rebecca is his US and Selznick debut: it wins Best Picture and Best Cinematography; he is nominated as Best Director
1941 Suspicion, for RKO, with Joan Fontaine again – this time she wins the Oscar – and Gary Grant (who will do Notorious, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest)
1942 Death of his mother
1943 Shadow of a Doubt (cast includes Hume Cronyn who will act again in Lifeboat and work as a writer on Rope and Under Capricorn – note that Cronyn is married to Jessica Tandy, who will act in The Birds); Lifeboat (he is nominated as Best Director)
1945 Spellbound, for Selznick again, first film with Ingrid Bergman (she will do Notorious and Under Capricorn). Nominated as Best Director
1946 Miklós Rózsa wins an Oscar for his score to Spellbound
1947 The Paradine Case, last film for Selznick (during its making, he observes Wilhelm Dieterle’s The Portrait of Jennie, an influence on Vertigo)
1948 Rope, first film with James Stewart (who will do Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo); Rope also experiments with ten-minute takes, seamlessly cut together. The same approach will be employed more modestly on Under Capricorn in 1949
1950 Returns to England for Stage Fright
1951 Begins Warners contract with Strangers on a Train, a hit after several failures; first film with cameraman Robert Burks, who will photograph everything through to Marnie (except for Psycho)
1953 I Confess, location work in Quebec
1954 Dial M for Murder, in 3D, first film with Grace Kelly (Rear Window and To Catch a Thief will follow); weight drops to 220 lbs; Rear Window (nominated as Best Director), first film with John Michael Hayes, who will also write the same year’s To Catch a Thief, during the making of which Kelly meets Prince Rainier, and The Trouble With Harry, his first collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann (who works on the remade The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie – and is fired on Torn Curtain)
1955 Becomes US citizen; begins television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a 30-minute show (1955-62) and then The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-5); the first will be revived after his death, in 1985-90; Hitchcock introduces and signs off on shows and directs several himself; overlapping with his best years on the big screen, the television show has a major effect in establishing him as a household figure; The Man Who Knew Too Much (the remake)
1956 The Wrong Man (unusual use of real-life story)
1957 Publication of book on Hitchcock by Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer
1959 North by Northwest
1960 Psycho (cost $800,000; first run gross $15 million). Nominated as Best Director
1963 The Birds
1965 Publication of Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films
1966 Torn Curtain, publication of long interview book by Francois Truffaut
1968 Awarded the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award (often nominated, he never won an Oscar as director)
1976 Family Plot
1979 Receives American Film Institute Life Achievement Award
1980 Made Knight Commander of the British Empire
29 April 1980 Dies. His estate exceeds $20 million.
David Thomson writes both fiction and non-fiction. His most recent books are Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles and a BFI Film Classic on Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep
Sight & Sound, v7 n1, January 1997, pages 26-30