Thursday, 21 June 2012

I Confess My Love For Hitchcock

Talk of Alfred Hitchcock is rife these days as a three month season planned by the BFI will screen restored versions of his early silent pictures. Although his name being dropped is a common occurrence amongst cinefiles, the dedicated season plus two biopics in the works have people working up a 'frenzy' over the 'master of suspense'.  Hitch is being played by Sir Anthony Hopkins in a film that documents the making of Psycho (1960), while Toby Jones' portrayal will focus on the director's relationship with actress Tippi Hedren of The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964).

Hitchcock was a unique personality, a playful persona that leaked into his pictures as well as advertising. Orson Welles - with his charm and hubris certainly gained public attention from his former work in radio - but Hitchcock was the first director to be adopted into the public's conscience. His personal introductions to his films seem more odd now than ever but remain just as ingenious with allusions to events in the pictures enticing rather than spoiling. He was also one of the first filmmaker's to be appointed with the auteur title by then French critics Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Goddard, they argued his films were all guided by a consistent authorial vision with recurring themes running through. Themes of obsession, injustice, identity, and voyeurism to name a few frequent his works.
His films often dealt with mistaken identity with 'everyday' men being thrown into dangerous overblown missions of survival; Hitchcock at a tender age was taught a lesson by his father and his policeman friend by locking him in a cell for an unknown period of time. Whether the duration of his imprisonment was prolonged or mere moments isn't important as the experience clearly scarred him, seeing Hitchcock exorcising these demons through most of his career. A fully formed visual style also signatures his films, partly helped by his background in silent film he knew how to tell a story purely through images despite working with sublime scripts. His brief cameos in each film caused audiences to play the guessing game of when the trademark rotund figure would make himself visible. This inclusion of himself didn't stem from purely egotistical reasons, Hitchcock always put entertainment first and through doing this didn't fear of bringing his audience out of his film as long as they were enjoying themselves, "a lot of movies are about life, mine are a slice of cake", he famously once said. 

I was first introduced to Hitchcock's films at the age of ten, my mum who of course stayed up much later than me then told me of a film she'd watched the night before. She explained over breakfast of two young men who kill their flatmate, hide him in a chest in the centre of the room, invite the deceased's family and friends round for a party, and serve food from the very place he's hidden. The very notion of this story intrigued me even before she revealed the whole film takes place within an apartment and is filmed in one take, it's actually comprised of ten roughly eight minute takes disguised to appear as one but she hadn't cottoned on. This was of course Rope (1948), I can't remember exactly how long it was  
before I finally saw the film but until that point it felt like I already had. It never left my mind and I even used to describe the premise at length to friends with excitement before I'd viewed it, the premise alone impacted me in a big way.

When I moved up to secondary school my placement during registration had me near a boarded display, on it were storyboards of a scene from Psycho (1960) - the big fruit cellar reveal if I remember correctly. With Hitchcock displayed in large letters I was reminded once again of my intrigue with this word, I was a lover of cinema from an early age but my love and knowledge of the medium only extended to what was on screen. As far as I was concerned Schwarzenegger was the only man involved with his own films and if a film was 90minutes long then it took that time to film it. I couldn't comprehend the effort and planning that goes into such productions until Hitchcock; here was a man who was the star of his films while remaining behind the camera, I wanted to know who this mythic man was and what the fuss was about. Luckily Psycho was playing on television soon after and it changed my life for ever. My mother had always found it odd how I craved 'scary' and 'gory' films without ever being frightened or disgusted by them, I'd always answer to her bafflement, "It's only a movie". Psycho broke me and my relationship with film as it taught me how to be scared, never had I thought a film as old black & white film such as this could have such powerful and lasting effects on me. It wasn't long before I was taping any Hitchcock film of the telly.

Below is my constrained attempt at a top 5 Hitchcock list:

5. Rope (1948)

The film that started it all for me - a tale of perverse murder as two well-to-do students kill their 'inferior' room mate, hide his body in the centre of their apartment, then invite their friends, family, and colleagues around to fully exercise the brilliance of their plan. Hitchcock wanted to shoot the film in one continuos take but due to technological restraints shot it in ten instead and used subtle techniques to hide each cut. This approach to the story heightens levels of suspense and claustrophobia which steadily increase to unbearable levels. James Stewart stars as the two young killers' professor who's  shocked to discover his own taught philosophy shaped their horrific take on Darwinism, there's more than hint of Crime and Punishment here but this is pure Hitchcock through and through. The master of suspense crafted brilliantly confined thrillers such as this previously with Lifeboat (1944) and later on with Dial M For Murder (1954) but never did those films have the level of enjoyment and playful macabre as Rope does.

4. North By Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill - a New York Ad-man wrongly identified by foreign spies as a government agent. After escaping the clutches of the men out to kill him he plays a deadly game of cat and mouse from multiple forces out to wrongfully imprison or destroy him. Recently a letter was unearthed which saw Ian Fleming asking Hitchcock personally if he's like to direct a Bond film, sadly we never saw this but on the merit of this thriller it certainly would have been spectacular! North By Northwest is Hitchcock's most thoroughly enjoyable work, with a snappy script that blends action, suspense, comedy, and romance seamlessly with remarkable results it earns its status as one of the all time great genre treats. The infamous crop duster sequence which has been homaged and spoofed countless times still holds up as a masterful example of directing, editing, and sound design that still delivers the desired effects. Eva Marie Saint stars as the stunning femme fatale who's motives are peeled away one layer at a time, her seductive skills pushing censorship of the time in a performance that to date makes for a racy screen presence. It's hard to imagine NBNW being improved upon with its effect on modern day thrillers being so utterly pronounced, this is pure popcorn entertainment and a perfectly crafted thriller that rivals all.

3. The Wrong Man (1956)

North By Northwest and The Wrong Man are only two of many dealings with mistaken identity within Hitchcock's canon, however while the former cites a perfect example of populist entertainment the latter shows a striking departure as we see Hitchcock at his most grounded and personal. Based on the true story of Manny Balestrero - who was wrongfully accused of multiple armed robberies and saw the justice system hitting him from every angle despite his innocence. Henry Fonda stars as Manny and effortlessly conveys our wronged everyman who's life and family are torn apart by the ordeal. Fonda was once of the all time great screen actors, a star you wouldn't normally cast as an everyman but here Fonda's renowned emotional delivery does wonders, his eyes carrying the entire picture. Vera Miles who later went to star in Psycho stars as Manny's wife Rose, a woman scarred and depleted by events. As Rose falls further into a catatonic state while her husband is on trial Miles plays her with restrain and  sensitivity, never falling into melodramatics popular in this decade. Though Rose's story takes away from Manny's its also a necessity to the emotional weight of the film, the lasting damage of Rose and on the family perhaps more relevant now than ever as murder 'suspect' are hung out to dry by the press before being cleared, their lives never returning to normality after such public judging. For a director so renowned for his entertainment value Hitchcock puts to rest his artifice while displaying this nightmare parable of the justice system. The Wrong Man is a rare example of Hitchcock at his most personal, his most despairing, but most importantly at his most touching.

2. Notorious (1946)

Notorious stars Ingrid Bergman as the American daughter of convicted Nazi-spy and Cary Grant as the agent who employs her, convinces her, seduces her to pervade a separate group of Nazi-criminals relocated to Brazil in the fallout of World War II. The results are strikingly dark, the drama often unpleasant and despite the romance between Bergman and Grant throughout this is far from a straight cut Hollywood romance as events and feelings become tense tortuous affairs. This superbly crafted war thriller hasn't aged much given its ripe old age with the romantically inclined moments executed in a manor distant from the cliched trappings of the time while the story builds impacting suspense reaching boiling point during its Nazi-party climax. Hitchcock even showing off to great effect when his camera cranes slowly down from the ceiling through crowds and reaching its destination in Bergman's hand revealing an important motif - a classic moment in all of cinema and a technical achievement that still impresses. The prowess of its director along with the grittiness of the drama has Notorious stand up rather well to this day and proves to be not just essential Hitchcock but a necessity for any fan of film noirs, war films, and thrillers. Pushing 70 years Notorious is still a blinding knockout.

1. Vertigo (1958)

This mystery of sexual obsession, multiple identities, and voyeurism sounds like quintessential Hitchcock but actually transcends his works and genre entirely, becoming a unique cinematic sensation that never fails to get under you skin no matter how many times its experienced. James Stewart in his fourth and final film with Hitchcock pulls out his best work of his career as acrophobic private detective John 'Scottie' Ferguson; investigating the strange activities of an old friends wife (Kim Novak), a woman obsessed with or rather possessed by a deceased woman who took her own life. As Scottie's investigation continues he becomes dangerously obsessed with his friend's wife,  and as the mystery unravels further down the rabbit hole Scottie's findings along with his own tragic past threaten to be his undoing. Hitchcock originally wanted Vera Miles for the role of Madeleine but she became pregnant and had to refuse - something Hitchcock never forgave her for. It's impossible to imagine any other as the mysteriously morbid Madeleine than Kim Novak, a striking young woman who conveys vulnerability and dangerous threat through her acting and sexuality. Her performance (like Stewart's) is layered and nuanced, melding with a story full of layers and deception. Robert Burk's photography makes the best case for technicolor ever depicted on film, while Bernard Herrmann's score contains dazzling selections of emotion that never force feeling but rather becoming another character in the piece. With each element firing on all cylinders in a hauntingly tragic story of the darkest and most perverse human desires, Vertigo makes for a purely immersive experience that will have its fans returning time and time again to feel its depth. A cinematic marvel about obsession that becomes somewhat of an obsession itself for its admirers.