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Alfred Hitchcock- Master of Suspense and Mystery

September 11, 2007

Alfred Hitchcock, a name synonymous with suspense and thriller. A person who directed movies mostly in one single genre, but yet, managed to churn out classics with amazing regularity. A person whose movie making craft is of the highest order. A person whose movies can provide lessons in the art of movie making. A pioneer, a master craftsman and a genius. And for me, a passion. Not just Hitch’s movies, but also the techniques he used, the concepts he introduced, his direction.
Hitch started his movie career with The Pleasure Garden, a 1925 silent movie about two chorus girls. The movie however was a commercial dud. Hitch made it with his next silent movie The Lodger(1927), a suspense thriller, something which would define his style in the years to come. The Lodger had one of Hitch’s favorite theme, the wrong guy in the wrong place. Something which Hitch would use to great effect in North By North West, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. In 1929 his Blackmail was originally started as a silent movie, but later became a talkie. Hitch started coming in cameo appearances from this movie onwards, and the climax was shot on the dome of the British Museum in London. This would also be a recurring theme, where the climax of his movies were shot against the backdrop of famous monuments, Mt Rushmore( North By North West), Royal Albert Hall( The Man Who Knew Too Much).
From 1930 to 1940, Hitch shot most of his works in Britain. And his first major movie from that period was The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best. The story revolves around a British couple holidaying in Switzerland, who witnesses the murder of a spy, and their daughter gets kidnapped so as to silence them. Hitch remade the same movie himself in 1956, a color version, starring James Stewart and Doris Day. This movie had the standard “wrong guy mistaken for some one else” theme, recurrent in most of other Hitch movies.

Hitch again followed it up with The 39 Steps in 1939, based on the novel of the same name by John Buchan. Starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Caroll, the movie is again a thriller, and here Hitch started off his “innocent man on the run” which would recur in North By North West and Sabotuer. Matter of fact North By North West, derives heavily from the 39 steps. The hero framed for a murder he did not commit, the cross country chase, the femme fatale blonde heroine who misleads the hero, most of it was referenced here. Also the famous train scene in North by North West, where Cary Grant meets Eva St Marie on the train, is again taken from this movie. Hitch however made changes to the original novel. In the book the 39 steps are actual physical steps having significance to the plot, whereas in the movie, it is the code name of a clandestine organization.

In 1936 Hitch came up with The Secret Agent based on a Somerset Maugham novel, which again involved the themes of mistaken identity and murder. The movie starred Sir John Gielgud as a British officer, whose death is faked, and he is sent on an intelligence mission. The same year also saw Hitch, coming up Sabotage, based on the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The movie is about an detective Ted Spencer, who investigates a series of anarchist attacks in London in the early 20th century.

Hitch came up with one of his best movies The Lady Vanishes in 1938. Set in a train, the movie centers around the mysterious disappearance of an elderly lady, Miss Froy, whom only the heroine Iris( Margaret Lockwood) had seen. None of the passengers believe her, except for the hero Gilbert( Michael Redgrave), who assists her. The entire movie is set on the train, and like the 39 Steps, it also centers around conspiracy and betrayal.
Both the 39 Steps and Lady Vanishes, introduced the concept of a McGuffin. What is the McGuffin? It is primarily a device which is critical to the plot, but not much is known about it. In The Lady Vanishes Ms.Froy is taught to be carrying some vital information, but none knows what it is exactly. And the same in The 39 Steps, where a stolen set of blueprints is critical to the plot, but we as audience never know what those blueprints are about.
David O Selznick invited Hitchcock to Hollywood, and in 1940 Hitch, made his first full fledged Hollywood movie Rebecca. Apart from being Hitch’s first American movie, it also marked a transition , where he now moved into psychological dramas. A screen adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1938 novel, the movie mixed elements of Gothic suspense with psychoanalysis. Sir Laurence Olivier, stars as Maxim De Winter, a wealthy widower, who lands up at his estate in Manderley, with his second wife played by Joan Fontaine. Problem is the servants in the household can’t get over Rebecca, De Winter’s first wife who died mysteriously, and are cold to his second wife. The new bride has to face a cold reception, and the relationship with her husband starts to strain. How she discovers the real story behind Rebecca is what the movie is about. This to date remains the only Hitchcock movie to have won an Oscar. The interesting aspect of the movie, is that the title character is never shown at all. We only hear about her.

In 1941 he directed a totally screwball comedy Mr & Mrs Smith( no relation to the Brangelina starrer). The same year saw Hitch entering into the realm of film noir with Suspicion, it would also mark Hitch’s association with Cary Grant, who starred in other Hitch movies like Notorious, To Catch a Thief and of course North by North West. The movie was based on a novel Before the Fact, by Francis Illes. Suspicion was a psychological study of a murderer. Joan Fontaine plays the heroine Lina, who falls the charms of a rakish young man Johnny, only to discover later that he is a crook. And the movie deals with Johnny’s attempts to get rid of his wife. The original novel was much more darker, with Johnny being shown in a really sinister angle. However Hitchcock had to tone down the character for the movie, keeping in mind Cary Grant’s “Mr. Nice Guy Image”. Hitch would often spend the rest of his life, complaining about this, and this was one reason, why he hated the Hollywood star system. Hitch also introduced the musical leitmotif here, where we have different versions of Johann Strauss waltz tune “Weiner Blut” being played, depending on the mood.
In 1942 Hitch again came back to his favorite, innocent man on the run theme, with Saboteur. Robert Cummings is a factory worker, who is accused of starting a fire. This also features the cross country chase, the mysterious blonde heroine, and the twists in the tale. And yes the climax at Statue of Liberty. In 1944, Hitch came up with Lifeboat, a story of a group of American and British citizens stuck on a life boat, after their ship had been sunk. The story takes a twist when a German survivor clambers on to the boat. The following year, saw again another classic from Hitch with Spellbound, starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. Peck plays a role with grey shades as an amnesiac patient, who is not what he seems to be, while Bergman plays a doctor, who treats him. The movie is also famous for it’s dream sequences conceived by artist Salvador Dali to depict 

mental delusion.  Hitch teamed up with his favorites Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in 1946’s Notorious. Bergman plays a spy who is sent to infiltrate a group of Nazi sympathesizers in Brazil. Grant plays her mentor and her lover in this thrilling espionage drama. The McGuffin again comes here in the form of the uranium, which the Nazis are seeking to smuggle.

Hitch made his successful transition to color with The Rope in 1948. Based on a play by Robert Hamilton, it also marked his collaboration with another of his favorites James Stewart. The movie is about the story of 2 young students who murder their classmates, inspired by the lecture made by one of their teachers Rupert Cadell( James Stewart). One of Hitch’s most experimental movies, it was shot on a single set. Hitch also used the concept of zooming to mask whatever cuts they might have been in editing, where in during a scene change, the camera would zoom in on to some object. Now one more recurrent theme in most of Hitch’s work is that in every case, the culprit would be known to the audience, but the suspense was in how the culprit would be found out. It was different from the standard who dun it, where the culprit is not revealed till the end.
Hitch continued his claustrophobic closed door approach with Dial M for Murder in 1954. Starring Grace Kelly as a married woman, whose husband played by Ray Milland suspects her of infidelity and tries to murder her, it was shot in 3-D. There was a 1998 version of this starring Michael Douglas and Gwenyth Paltrow, titled The Perfect Murder. The same year also saw another closed space movie with the visually claustrophobic Rear Window, starring his another favorite James Stewart. Stewart plays a wheel chair confined patient, who in order to pass time, spies on the neighboring building using a telescope. He believes that a murder has taken place in the building, while his girlfriend Lisa( Grace Kelly), believes he is just plain paranoid. Brian De Palma paid a rather gory homage to this movie with Body Double in 1984.1955 saw him team up his favorites Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, based on a novel by David Dodge. Set in the backdrop of the French Riveira, Grant stars as an ex con artist, who needs to prove his innocence, when a series of robberies, tends to implicate him. Grace Kelly plays his love interest in the movie, which is a mixture of suspense, romance and comedy. 1956 saw Hitch remaking his own 1934 starrer The Man Who Knew Too Much in color, starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Hitch called the 1956 version a professional’s work, while the 1934 version was that of an amateur. The movie is also famous for the song “Que Sera, Sera” which also won the 1956 Best Song Oscar.

Hitch and Stewart teamed up again in 1958 for Vertigo, one of his best movies for sure. Stewart plays an ex San Francisco cop, who suffers from fear of heights after seeing his colleague fall to his death. He investigates Madeleine( Kim Novak), wife of his acquaintance, after he reports that she seems to suffer from delusion. He sees her commit suicide and is disturbed, however he has a greater shock, when he sees another woman with the same resemblance. Adapted from a French novel Sueurs froides: d’entre les morts, the movie stresses on the double identity and red herring theme. Also watch out for the stunning opening graphics and Bernard Hermann’s score.

1959 saw Hitch team up with Cary Grant, in North By North West, a typical innocent man suspected of murder in a cross country chase. The movie had all the elements of Hitchcock’s style, the man on the run, the mysterious blonde female, the conspiracy theory, the suave villain. And of course the by now classic scene, where Grant is chased by a crop duster plane, and the climax on Mt. Rushmore. One movie which any movie lover would readily identify with Hitch is of course 1960’s Pyscho. This was the movie which in a way kick started the killer on the loose genre. The movie revolves around the mysterious Norman Bates( Anthony Perkins), and his scary motel. And yes the by now famous shower sequence, which was considered quite graphic for it’s times. The movie also had a strong psycho analytic thread running throughout, with the lead character’s mother domination, coming into the foreground. And in 1963 Hitch came up with the Birds, which was a totally different genre. The movie depicting a series of bird attacks, on the residents of a sea side town is regarded as one of the best in the creature vs man movies, along with Jaws.

Hitch’s later movies like Torn Curtain, a cold war drama starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews and 1969’s Topaz were not really up to expectations. He did come back to form with 1976’s Frenzy, related to a serial killer, and which remains one of his most graphic movies to date. But till then, we will always remember good old Hitch for the wonderful classics he has made.


From → Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Just loved this post. Superb tribute to the man. 😀

  2. Wonderful tribute for who many consider the master of the medium.

  3. Great tribute Ratnakar. I am happy to see Hitchcock’s earlier work in here, THE 39 STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES are two of my all-time favorites.

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