Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock – Hollywood Legend – April 2012

Alfred Hitchcock may be Hollywood’s greatest director. His career spans five decades with four films on AFI’s top 100 American films of all-time list (only Steven Spielberg has more with five) and nine films on IMDB’s top 250 user-rated films of all-time (no director has more, Stanley Kubrick is second with eight). Known as ‘The Mast of Suspense’, Hitchcock used many common themes and narrative devices in his films, among them: suspense (the obvious one), a voyeuristic approach to way his films are shot, the use of a MacGuffin, an ordinary person put into extraordinary circumstances, mistaken identity (the wrong man/woman), the charming sociopath (a criminal the viewer likes), staircases, trains, an antagonist with a dark secret that also effects the protagonist as they share in the secret or guilt, domineering mothers, falling from high places, famous landmarks, the idea of the perfect murder, and violence in a theatre (and more). Hitchcock also liked to make a cameo appearance in all his films (sort of like a Where’s Waldo type thing for viewers). Amazingly, during his career he never won an Oscar for Best Director (instead receiving an honorary Oscar in 1968), though he was nominated five times. Plus, he only had one film win Best Picture. Hitchcock is not only one of the most iconic directors, but his films (for the most part) also hold up over time, and seem to get better (for example, Vertigo was not well received upon its release but is now considered his masterpiece and among the greatest American films).

Early Career, 1930s:

Hitchcock got his start in 1920 working as a title designer for silent films at Islington Studios. It would take him five years to make the jump to director. In 1924, he went to Germany working with director Graham Cutts on the film Die Prinzessin und der Geiger. While in Germany, he became very influenced by the work of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang (specifically their films The Last Laugh and Destiny, respectively). Hitchcock’s first directing projects were marred with problems. However, in 1925 Gainsborough Pictures and Michael Balcon gave him another chance. He made The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle, but neither was a commercial success. Hitchcock’s luck changed in 1926 when he made his first thriller The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. It was a major commercial and critical hit in the U.K. Many regard it as the first ‘Hitchcockian’ film. His next landmark film came with 1929’s Blackmail. During production, British International Pictures decided to convert it to a sound picture (a talkie). It is often considered to be the first British sound film. In 1933, Hitchcock worked again with Balcon, making films for Gaumont-British Pictures. The first was The Man Who Knew Too Much, which was a success. The second was The 39 Steps, which both considered to be the best of Hitchcock’s early period and the film to introduce the MacGuffin plot device (basically, a MacGuffin is something in which the whole story seems to revolve around, but really has nothing to do with the meaning or outcome of the film). His next big success was The Lady Vanishes (which, along with The 39 Steps, is among BFI’s Top 100 British Films of all-time). During this period, Hitchcock worked with writer Charles Bennett helping him craft his storytelling style and themes. The success of these three films and Hitchcock’s ascendancy to the top of British cinema led to Hollywood’s most successful producer David O. Selznick signing him to a seven-year contract in 1939, effectively bringing Hitchcock to Hollywood (among his early career films, I highly recommend The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes as must-sees).

Coming to Hollywood, 1940s:

Hitchcock’s move to Hollywood was a rocky one. While he enjoyed the plentiful resources the American studios offered, he felt much more comfortable in England – many of his early American films were shot in England – and his relationship with Selznick was strained over how much creative control Selznick wanted to have on his projects. However, Hitchcock, a meticulous planner in preproduction, would craft his films shot-by-shot ahead of time, and then would only shoot exactly the shots he needed. Thus, his films could only be edited together in one way, which gave Hitchcock final cut over the creative process (which drove Selznick crazy). Their first film together was Rebecca. It won the 1941 Oscar for Best Picture and starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock worked with cinematographer George Barnes on the film, creating one of the best shot black and white films of all-time. The photography is magnificent (Barnes also winning an Oscar for the film). Along with John Ford’s Stagecoach, Rebecca was one of the films that Orson Welles studied intensely before directing Citizen Kane (introductions of Mandalay and Xanadu are very similar in each film). With war breaking out in Europe, Hitchcock felt uneasy working in Hollywood while England was engaged in a life-or-death struggle. For his second American film, Foreign Correspondent, he made a spy thriller that would sympathize with the plight of the English and garner support from Americans for the British war effort (though, the Production Code would not allow him to directly reference Germany or Germans – the most effective of these ‘propaganda’ films was William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, which Winston Churchill said ‘had done more for the war effort than a flotilla of destroyers’). In 1941, Hitchcock made his first film as both a producer and director with Suspicion (his second film with Fontaine, who won an Oscar for Best Actress, and first with frequent collaborator Cary Grant). While the film works well as a thriller, it also has a great sense of humor and is very funny in many places (it is my second favorite Hitchcock film after Rebecca). Hitchcock would then make a two picture deal with Universal. The first was Saboteur. Most Hollywood films at the time were shot on studio back lots, but Hitchcock did extensive location shooting in New York for the film, incorporating the Statue of Liberty. His second for Universal was Shadow of a Doubt with Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton, which is considered to be his first true American film (and his personal favorite), with extensive location filming in the small town of Santa Rosa in Northern California. Next, for 20th Century Fox, Hitchcock adapted a script that John Steinbeck had written about survivors of a German U-boat attack. Lifeboat is an extraordinary piece of directing, as the whole film takes place on a small lifeboat and yet is thrilling and engaging throughout. After taking a break in England, and working as an advisor to the British Army while they were producing a documentary on the Holocaust, Hitchcock worked again with Selznick on 1945’s Spellbound with Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. The film explores psychoanalysis and is best remembered for its dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali (the film also features wonderful cinematography from George Barnes and an Academy Award winning score from Miklos Rozsa). Selznick was set to produce Hitchcock’s next film, Notorious, as well but due to financial troubles on his film Duel in the Sun, he sold the package of Hitchcock, stars Bergman and Grant and the script to RKO. The film went on to be a huge box office hit and one of Hitchcock’s most critically acclaimed films. Hitchcock consulted with Dr. Robert Millikan of Caltech about the development of an atomic bomb as uranium would play a role in the narrative. Selznick thought that the idea was science fiction and did not like it. However, he was left with his foot in his mouth after Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. The FBI even had Hitchcock under surveillance briefly after his use of uranium in the film. His last film for Selznick was The Paradine Case with Gregory Peck, a courtroom drama that was not too well received. Next, Hitchcock made his first color film – 1948’s Rope with James Stewart (along with Grant, the only star to appear in four Hitchcock films). Like Lifeboat, Hitchcock wanted to experiment with suspense in a confined space, as the whole film essentially takes place in one small apartment (and more than that, Hitchcock shot it to appear as if the whole film is one long take). The 1940’s established Hitchcock as one of Hollywood’s premier directors both with box office success and critical acclaim (I highly recommend Rebecca, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Notorious as must-sees).

The Master of Suspense, 1950s:

The 1950’s are considered to be Hitchcock’s peak years. His first classic film of the decade came with 1951’s Strangers on a Train, which combines many of the elements of Hitchcock’s earlier work – specifically two people talking about the perfect murder (crisscross!). The film also marks the initial collaboration between cinematographer Robert Burks and Hitchcock. Burks would shoot many of Hitchcock’s greatest films (twelve in all, and most of them in the 1950s). Hitchcock’s next three films would star Grace Kelly. Hitchcock noticed Kelly after she did a screen test for MGM in 1950 and cast her in his film Dial M for Murder. During filming, the two formed a special bond, and he became a mentor of sort for Kelly, who was relatively new to Hollywood. The film was also the first Hitchcock film to feature 3D photography (only in one scene), but the public had grown tired of 3D by 1954 and it was rarely screened with the 3D effect intact. It also featured Hitchcock’s return to Technicolor productions (which would be a keystone of most of his work in the 1950s and 1960s). Hitchcock then took a deal returning to Paramount Pictures. His first film under his new deal was Rear Window with Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. Hitchcock again explores suspense in an enclosed space, as Stewart’s character is confined to a wheelchair and the whole film is shot in one room and only from Stewart’s perspective. The film also has a very voyeuristic element to it, as Stewart literally spends his days spying on his neighbors. This was the first Hitchcock film (and first Grace Kelly film – who is stunningly beautiful and elegant in it) I saw, and it blew me away (and I had loved movies all my life). I immediately went out and rented or bought every Hitchcock film I could and he has been my favorite director ever since (saw it in 1999, my freshman year of college, on Turner Classic Movies). His final film with Kelly was 1955’s To Catch a Thief, which also stared Cary Grant (who would later say that Kelly was his favorite co-star). The film is one of Hitchcock’s lighter stories, with great witty dialogue and chemistry between its stars. Cinematographer Burks also won an Oscar for his photography of the French Riviera. He also made The Trouble with Harry in 1955, about a dead body that turns up outside a small town. While it may not be among Hitchcock’s canonized masterpieces, it is among my favorites and features beautiful cinematography specific to the changing colors of Fall in New England (it was filmed in Vermont). It is also the first collaboration between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrmann, who created many of Hitchcock’s most iconic scores (they worked together nine times, and he also scored a few episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). Hitchcock then remade one of his own early films in 1956 with The Man Who Knew Too Much. It stars Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day (who sang the song Que Sera, Sera for the film). It has a magnificent score, and the ending sequence at Albert Hall is among my favorites (in which composer Herrmann makes a cameo conducting the orchestra). For his next film, The Wrong Man, Hitchcock returned to the theme of mistaken identity, this time with Henry Fonda starring in a film-noir style story based on a real case from 1953. Hitchcock’s next film was 1958’s Vertigo, starring Stewart and Kim Novak. Much to the surprise of modern film fans, when the film came out it was met both with negative reviews and poor box office numbers (despite being considered a masterpiece today). It was the last time Stewart would work with Hitchcock. Honestly, watching it now, it is hard to imagine what critics then thought was so wrong with it. The story is interesting, the acting is good and aesthetically speaking it is phenomenal, revolutionizing many techniques that are popular today (like zooming in while pulling the camera back). Hitchcock’s last film of the 1950s was North by Northwest. It stars Cary Grant in yet another mistaken identity narrative (some even think it is a loose remake of The 39 Steps); it co-stars Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. It was Grant’s final film with Hitchcock (one of the last of his career as well – Hitchcock called Grant, ‘the only actor I ever loved in my whole life’), and maybe his best remembered. Featuring many of Hitchcock’s most memorable sequences, the film was a hit for the director. His films of the decade and TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents not only made Hitchcock a critically acclaimed director, but also made him a star in his own right, being one of the most recognizable personalities in Hollywood (especially among non-actors – for his films from the 1950s I highly recommend Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, and North by Northwest).

A Great Career Coming to an End, 1960s:

Hitchcock began the 1960s with two of his most memorable films of his career. 1960’s Psycho is probably his most famous film, due to its critical acclaim, iconic score and memorable villain. He made the film for almost no money. It had a tiny budget, leading to the film being shot in black and white, Hitchcock using his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew and on a spare set at Revue Studios (where the TV show was shot), after Paramount had twice refused to fund the film (it was the final film of his contract with Paramount and they wanted him to do a different film – originally he was to make No Bail for the Judge with Audrey Hepburn, but she became pregnant and the film was scrapped). Hitchcock financed the film himself, making a deal for Paramount to distribute by taking a big directing fee and 60% of the profits. The film also had more violence and sexuality than any of Hitchcock’s previous work (due to the erosion of the production code), and seemed much more graphic. Psycho set the tone for his work for the rest of his career. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins star, but Hitchcock did all the publicity himself, for fear of plot details being leaked. His next film was the first of two with Tippi Hedren starring. The Birds, a story about birds attacking people, features hundreds of shots featuring actual birds and animated sequences. It is his 49th film, and widely considered his last classic. After his troubles with Paramount, Hitchcock moved to Universal. His second film with Hedren and first for Universal was Marnie (which also stars Sean Connery). While critics are mixed, many consider it among Hitchcock’s great films. Marnie is one of the first three Hitchcock films I saw (along with Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry), and thus it holds a special place for me (as I was discovering this wonderful director). Plus growing up with Connery’s Bond films, I had an almost instinctual love of the film (as it was made the same year as Goldfinger). Due to failing health, his output declined substantially. His next film came in 1966 with the Cold War spy thriller Torn Curtain. He initially wanted Cary Grant to star, but Grant had just retired with the birth of his daughter. So, Hitchcock cast Paul Newman (who was right in the middle of his career peak) to star alongside Julie Andrews (a budding star at the time, coming off Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music). Newman, coming for a different generation of actors than Grant and Stewart, did not get along with Hitchcock. He was a method actor, constantly asking what his motivation should be and complaining about the script. Also, the chemistry between Newman and Andrews was never really there. Thus, the film is considered to be a failure compared to Hitchcock’s earlier output. Though in the minority, I still like the film, and find many of the sequences to be fantastic (especially the scene in which Newman’s character goes out to an isolated farm to meet his contact). His final film of the 1960’s, Topaz, is another Cold War spy thriller that is not very good at all. The 1960’s saw Hitchcock make two of his most famous films, and a decline in his work towards the end of the decade (form this decade I highly recommend Psycho).

Last Two Films, 1970s:

Hitchcock only made two films during the 1970s. In 1972, he returned to London to make Frenzy (which some call a loose remake of The Lodger). The film again focused on the theme of ‘the wrong man’, as Jon Finch plays a man mistakenly arrested as London’s Necktie Murderer. Hitchcock had always pushed the boundaries of censorship during the Production Code era, but with Frenzy he produces a film that is graphically violent and features nudity and profanity (both taboo previously). It is not universally called a masterpiece or considered among Hitchcock’s best films, but in recent years it is beginning to find its place among his canonized work. Personally, I think it is among his five best films and expertly directed. Here is a director, making his 53rd film in his fifth decade of his career, and he makes a film that better utilizes the style of 1970’s auteur filmmaking than most of the other great directors of the decade. I think it is one of the ten best films of the 1970s. Hitchcock’s last film came in 1976 with Family Plot, a sort of theist/con-artist thriller. It is decent, but not nearly as good as most of his work. He did begin work on another film, only getting into the scripting phase before abandoning it due to poor health (I highly recommend Frenzy).

Alfred Hitchcock Career Highlights:

1)      The 39 Steps (1935) – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
2)      The Lady Vanishes (1938) – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
3)      Rebecca (1940)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
4)      Suspicion (1941) – director (DVD, Streaming)
5)      Saboteur (1942) – director (DVD, Streaming)
6)      Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – director (DVD, Streaming)
7)      Lifeboat (1944) – director (DVD, Streaming)
8)      Foreign Correspondent (1945) – director (DVD)
9)      Spellbound (1945) – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
10)   Notorious (1946)* – director (Blu-ray, DVD)
11)   Rope (1948) – director (DVD, Streaming)
12)   Strangers on a Train (1951) – director (DVD, Streaming)
13)   Dial M for Murder (1954) – director (DVD, Streaming)
14)   Rear Window (1954)* – director (DVD, Streaming)
15)   To Catch a Thief (1955) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
16)   The Trouble with Harry (1955) – director (DVD, Streaming)
17)   The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – director (DVD, Streaming)
18)   The Wrong Man (1956) – director (DVD, Streaming)
19)   Vertigo (1958)* – director (DVD, Streaming)
20)   North by Northwest (1959) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
21)   Psycho (1960) – director (Blu-ray, DVD, Streaming)
22)   The Birds (1963) – director (DVD, Streaming)
23)   Marnie (1964) – director (DVD, Streaming)
24)   Torn Curtain (1966) – director (DVD, Streaming)
25)   Frenzy (1972)* – director (DVD, Streaming)
*Editor’s picks

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