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Alfred Hitchcock
One of the Greatest Filmmakers in History

Perhaps the greatest controversy surrounding the late Alfred Hitchcock is whether he is the greatest director in film history, or simply one of the greatest. Certainly any short list of great directors -- such as Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola -- must also include Hitchcock.

Today's most successful directors universally cite Hitchcock as an important influence. Not only did Hitchcock set the standard for thrillers, and single-handedly develop much of today's film "grammar", his films are still irresistably watchable today. He is among a short list of directors whose films continue to appeal to critics as well as "the masses."

Although his films were often hyped as "shocking" or "terrifying," the frightening elements in his films actually relied on the viewer's own imagination, rather than graphic depictions of blood and gore. Nearly all of his films are rated PG, and only two ("Psycho" and "Frenzy") were rated R. Families and people from a wide variety of backgrounds can appreciate Hitchcock's films, without being offended by the gratuitous and juvenile violence, racism, sex, vulgarity, etc. found in many contemporary films.

Hitchcock's approach to suspence has also held up much better than the "show-everything" fake gore employed by other films. While modern audiences simply laugh at the "scary" parts in many older films, Hitchcock films such as "Psycho" and "The Birds" remain genuinely frightening even today. Audiences become emotionally involved with the likable "everyman" characters typically cast as Hitchcock's protagonists. His use of subjective storytelling (restricting the camera so that it shows only the viewpoint of a single character), coupled with selective revelations so that the audience knows important things the protagonist has not yet learned, all serve to heighten the suspence in his films.

The American Film Institute's list of "100 Greatest Films" includes four films by Hitchcock. Only Steven Spielberg, with five, directed more. (Billy Wilder, also with four, tied with Hitchcock.) The four Hitchcock films on the AFI 100 list are those which are widely regarded as his four greatest works, films which stand out even among his other masterpieces. They are: "Psycho" (ranked #18 on the AFI list), "North by Northwest" (#40), "Rear Window" (#42), "Vertigo" (#61). Interestingly enough, all of these films were made within a six-year period, a time film historians call the height of Hitchcock's creative abilities.

"Psycho", the last of these four, is the film most often picked as Hitchcock's greatest film. It was also chosen by the AFI as the Number One film on their "List of the 100 Most Thrilling American Films." The American Film Institute singled "Psycho" out ahead of classics such as "Jaws", "The Exorcist" and "The Godfather." In all, a total of nine Hitchcock films are on the AFI "Most Thrilling" list, making him by far the most represented director on the list. The other Hitchcock thrillers on the list are: "North by Northwest" (#4), "The Birds" (#7), "Rear Window" (#14), "Vertigo" (#18), "Strangers on a Train" (#32), "Notorious" (#38), "Dial M for Murder" (#48), and "Rebecca" (#80).

After "Psycho" was released in 1960, Hitchcock made six more films. Having arrived at the pinnacle of his profession, Hitchcock was daringly experimental even then. Not all of his exeriments succeeded. He himself concluded that "Torn Curtain" (1966) was one of his weakest pictures, largely because it lacked most of the elements he had become famous for. He admitted that "Topaz" (1969) was failed experiment in the symbolic use of color. This period also produced four successful and still very popular films: The Birds; Marnie; Frenzy; and Family Plot.

"Family Plot" (1976) was, fittingly enough, one of his most light-hearted pictures, and even ends with a delightful break-the-fourth-wall wink at the audience.

Films Directed by Hitchcock
[Some of his earliest films, and his television series, are not listed here.]

Hitchcock's Films: A Film Lover's Delight

Hitchcock's films are the type that make a real "film lover" out of an ordinary movie goer. Hitchcock's last film ("Family Plot") was released in 1976, before I had any real awareness of the medium. The only other film Hitchcock released during my lifetime was "Frenzy" (1972).

Obviously I never experienced a Hitchcock film as a first-run theatrical release. I readily admit that I came late to Hitchcock's films, but once I discovered them, they became a great treat.

Fortunately, all of Hitchcock's best films are available on high-quality DVDs. Perhaps I'm fortunate that I never viewed a worn, faded print shown as part of a theatrical re-release. The first time I watched "Vertigo" on DVD I was absolutely floored. This was made in 1958! I grew up weened on "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones." I had heard about Hitchcock ever since I read an early (reprinted) "Spider-man" comic in which a character invited Peter Parker to see the latest Hitchcock film at the drive-in.

But as a young person I never a saw anything by Hitchcock. He wasn't making anything new, and his movies didn't have aliens or spaceships or robots or even sword fights. So, really, what was the point?

As a young teenager I remember that as part of an overnight youth trip we watched "Psycho," which I wasn't at all interested in because I detested horror movies. But I think it must have been "Psycho II" that we were shown. I can't remember. I hardly watched it. ("Psycho II", of course, was NOT directed by Hitchcock. He never made a sequel. If he were alive today I wonder if he would have made "The Return of the Birds" or "South by Southwest". He probably would NOT have done so. Thank goodness we'll never know.)

So then I'm in my thirties. Increasingly well-read. Increasingly familiar with great movies. Thoroughly enthralled by the American Film Institute special "100 Years...100 Movies", which presented a list of the 100 "greatest films in American history. A lot of Hitchcock films were on the list, I noted. I had never seen any of them. But the titles of his films were certainly familiar.

I was quite aware that Hitchcock made "Psycho" and "The Birds" and "Rear Window." I thought "Vertigo" was a comedy made by "Gene Wilder" (I had it confused with "High Anxiety", a movie I had seen.) Other Hitchcock films not on that list include "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "Dial M for Murder", abd "To Catch a Thief". These were movie titles I had read or heard mentioned countless times in passing. They were all made by Hitchcock as well? Clearly he was an influential director.

But still I hadn't actually watched anything by Hitchcock. I was already sufficiently educated to refer to him as a great director. What more did I need to know? Perhaps I thought he was such an artistic master that his films would cater only to the critic, and would seem boring and impenetrable to a common moviegoer like myself.

Finally, I rented and watched a Hitchcock movie.

I was interested in the Utah-born actor Robert Walker, and had read that his finest performance was as "Bruno Antony" in the 1951 film "Strangers on a Train."

The fact that Hitchcock directed "Strangers on a Train" didn't factor into my decision to watch it. But I could immediately see that something was different, special, and very entertaining about this filmmaker. Here's a film that is fifty years old, in black and white, with virtually no special effects and actors who few people today have even heard of. (I like Walker, but he died an early death and never achieved the star status of a Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart. Walker's co-star is Farley Granger. He's good in this film, but I've certainly never heard of him.)

The plot of "Strangers" is familiar to anybody who has read that its basic plot figured into in the Danny DeVito movie "Throw Momma From the Train." Two strangers meet on a train, at which point they agree to exchange murders. Bruno (Robert Walker) will kill the wife of Guy Haines (Granger), because she refuses to grant him a divorce, and Guy will kill Bruno's domineering mother. This way police will not be able to use motive and family relationships to identify the killer.

It seems like a rather dark and morbit plot, but the great twist is that Guy never really agrees to this arrangement. He thinks Bruno is just joking, until he finds out that his estranged wife has actually been murdered. What follows is a tightly-crafted and suspenseful tale in which Guy tries to avoid being caught up in a scandal which could ruin his political and social ambitions, while Bruno tries mercilessly to force Guy to complete his end of the bargain -- by killing Bruno's mother.

"Strangers on a Train" was simply riveting. I was completely drawn in, frequently surprised, and genuinely tense. So this is what a "Hitchcock thriller" is? I was certainly intrigued.

I next watched "Vertigo" (1958), because it is on the AFI "Top 100" list, and a DVD review book gave both film and the DVD quality its highest rating. With "Vertigo" I was hooked. What a masterpiece! What a great movie-watching experience! Jimmy Stewart stars as Scottie, a San Francisco police officer who, in the opening scene, sees his partner fall to his death during a chase. Months later Stewart's character suffers from vertigo, a debilitating amount of dizziness brought on by heights. Stewart plays opposite a breathtaking Kim Novak. And Barbara Bel Geddes thoroughly enlivens the movie as "Midge," Scottie's friend.

With its stunning plot twist, watching "Vertigo" for the first time was a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the film is so gorgeously filmed and staged, and features such engaging and nuanced performances by Stewart, Novak and Geddes, that it bears repeated viewings. And I haven't even mentioned the famous film score by Bernard Herrman, which is so important to the film that it's almost like another main character.

And this isn't even considered Hitchcock's best film. After seeing "Vertigo" I felt that there are very, very few directors working today who have ever, or who will ever, make anything even half as worthy as this one film.

Next I tried out "North by Northwest", which starred Cary Grant as a man mistaken for an international spy. It features the famous chase across the face of Mount Rushmore. It also features a famous scene with Cary Grant waiting in a corn field to meet some people. He is in the middle of nowhere, and nothing happens for something like ten minutes. And it's incredible! I was amazed, and wondered how many directors would dare to make an action/suspense movie with a scene in which essentially nothing happens in a corn field for ten minutes straight. Amazing. This movie is much more light-hearted than "Vertigo", but still very suspenseful. The final scene in the chateau near Mount Rushmore had me at the edge of my seat. Yes, the film has flaws (the drunk driving scene seems a bit silly and much too long), but its weaknesses are overwhelmed by its bold, original strengths. It is not surprising that the American Film Institute voted this #4 on their list of the 100 "most thrilling" American movies of all time.

Even Hitchcock's "lesser" films are an order of magnitude beyond most movies. "Rope" is regarded as a failed experiment, but I found it fascinating, and entertaining. The entire film is a single scene, filmed in real time. Sure, it doesn't make for quite an expansive and entertaining film as "North by Northwest", but who else could have made such a thrilling, interesting movie out of a single cut. The plot involves two preppie college students (including Farley Granger) who decide to kill an associate just for the experience. They hide the body in a large chest and then invite friends and family (including their mercurial college professor, Jimmy Stewart) over for a dinner party. The question of whether the murder will be discovered kept me on edge throughout the film. "Rope" is a unique and unforgettable film.

And "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) is a delight! I loved the HUGE and unexpected red herring at the tanner's shop. The Oscar-winning song "Que Seram Sera" is infectious. Composer Bernard Hermann is actually a character in the film. This one stars, once again, Jimmy Stewart.

Jimmy Stewart also stars in "Rear Window" (1954) which used yet another experimental filming technique, but is considered far more successful than "Rope." "Rear Window", believe it or not, takes place entirely in one room. Stewart's character has suffered a leg injury and can't leave his apartment. From his window he watches people in the courtyard, and through their windows, in a large apartment complex during a hot Summer week. Hitchcock exhibits incredible discipline by never venturing outside of Stewart's perspective, never showing any scene other than what can be seen from his very restricted vantage point. Amazingly, it pays off, and this is an utterly original and entertaining film.

The wonderful thing is I still have many Hitchcock classics to look forward to seeing for the first time, and many which I look forward to watching again. Most movies made today aren't even worth watching once.

Filmography source: Internet Movie Database. Web page created 4 September 2001. Last modified 4 September 2001.