Over the next few weeks, we are going to run all my movie-file cards, 1952-1970, on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, who is currently much in the news because there are two pictures—one on HBO, the other in theatres—about the Master of Suspense. The HBO film, The Girl, featuring Toby Jones as Hitch, deals with the making of The Birds, with particular focus on the director’s supposed sexual harassment of newcomer Tippi Hedren. I was on the set of The Birds and had no sense of that going on, which does not mean it isn’t true. The picture in theatres is titled Hitchcock, and is about the making of the movie he made just before The Birds, and indeed the most successful (box office) picture in Hitchcock’s long career, the notorious Psycho. In this biopic, Hitch is portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, his wife Alma is played by Helen Mirren, and Janet Leigh is done by Scarlet Johansson.
Having known Mr. Hitchcock for nearly twenty years, I would say that he’d no doubt be vastly amused by the whole spectacle. He seems to remain the most famous director in picture history, now some 32 years after his death. Clearly, he did something right. The French revered him first, although he was extremely popular in America: the ascerbic host of his own TV series for a dozen years; the critics and Oscars never really took him seriously in his own country, not till after the French New Wave pointed the way. I actually curated the first Hitchcock retrospective in the United States, 1963 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and wrote the accompanying monograph, The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. He never won a competitive Academy Award.
Nevertheless, Hitch made a series of personal, impeccably directed classics that afford numerous viewings with little loss of effectiveness. My very lengthy interviews with him over a number of years can be found in the Hitchcock chapter of my Who the Devil Made It, now also available as an ebook.
Here’s what I thought of his work over the years:
REAR WINDOW (1954; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1954: (Unbearably suspenseful, tremendously exciting, superbly directed and acted Hitchcock thriller: a brilliant and extremely entertaining blend of humor, sex and homicide, made with the skill and wit unique to Hitchcock.)
Added 1954: (The tension does not lessen on second viewing, though Hitchcock confines himself to one room and a man’s point of view of a courtyard; a tour-de-force, and a vastly entertaining one.)
Added 1962: Exceptional* (A magnificent and biting Hitchcockian masterpiece about a voyeur and what happens when he begins to suspect a neighbor of murder. Often wickedly funny, and complex in its implications, this is one of the director’s most thoroughly successful works, on all levels. [James] Stewart and [Grace] Kelly are excellent, as are [Thelma] Ritter and everyone across the way.)
Added 1966: (It is remarkable the way Hitchcock is able to tell an exciting story magnificently, and also make it work on the subtler and more complex levels of ambiguity and guilt. Certainly this is his “testament” picture in that it is a summation of his technique — the subjective camera. A great film, made with the lightest of touches.)
Added 1967: (A breathtakingly well made picture, as well as an endlessly provocative one.)
Added 1968: (More than any other director’s work, Hitchcock’s holds up best to repeated viewings; nothing is diminished; everything looks better.)
JAMAICA INN (1939; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1954: Good* (Charles Laughton gives such a marvelously theatrical performance in this movie that one is almost made to disregard the rather melodramatic aspects of Miss [Daphne] du Maurier’s tale of period piracy and plunder. Hitchcock’s direction is quite skillful and the other actors are effectively grotesque but this is Mr. Laughton’s picture, memorable only because of his wicked, gross, and devilish characterization.)
DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: Good* (Quite exciting and suspenseful Hitchcock melodrama — about a man who plots to kill his wife — nicely, wittily written and acted, but somehow less successful than the Master’s usual work, less personal, more conventional.)
Added 1961: (But it’s still Hitchcock and he is one of the greats. Originally made in 3-D, this explains the flatness of the backgrounds as all the shots were composed with the new process in mind. Anyway, this is an above average stage thriller effectively and masterfully adapted for the screen.)
2012: I finally saw this in 3-D a few years ago and it really works so much better that way; it’s the most subtle, least gimmicky use of the form. The picture becomes 100% more effective, each shot like a perfectly fitted building block, the compositions always in depth and perfect moment for moment. Too bad it’s not readily available that way.
NOTORIOUS (1946; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: Excellent- (Extremely entertaining, exciting and suspenseful Hitchcock spy-thriller; exceptionally well acted by Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, tightly written, and directed with great zest and wit.)
Added 1963: (Really fascinating work: perverse, tense, often deceptive, ambiguous: who is the real victim in Hitch’s mind and who the real villain. Among Hitchcock’s most bitterly personal achievements.)
2012: I would rate this at the zenith today, Exceptional*, as it’s one of my five favorite
HItchcocks, and may very well rank among his top three masterworks. If you haven’t seen Notorious, you haven’t seen the director at his psychological peak. And the acting
is so good: Bergman is sublime; Rains is strangely touching; Grant is at his darkest.
When I praised Cary once about this film, he said, “Yeah, that’s the picture Hitch threw
to Ingrid. He always threw the picture to the girl, if he could.”
SUSPICION (1941; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: Excellent* (Tremendously exciting, frightening, suspenseful and tautly amusing Hitchcock melodrama about a wife’s suspicions that her husband is trying to kill her — superbly played by Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce; tight, tense, witty, sophisticated, brilliantly directed.)
Added 1961: (A vicious statement against women comes through on second viewing: Fontaine wants to suspect Grant, wants him to murder her even, because of her suppressed sexual desires; a striking directorial tour-de-force masterfully acted.)
2012: I don’t really think it’s “a vicious statement against women,” not at all. It’s a very
perverse film, that’s unquestionable, because everything points to Cary Grant being a
killer, but people wouldn’t accept that, so Hitchcock turns it into an ambiguous tale indeed; because you’re never even certain at the end that Cary might actually kill her after the fade-out. Either that, or she has a death-as-climax wish.
THE LADY VANISHES (1938; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: (Marvelously entertaining, extremely exciting and witty suspense thriller about mysterious doings on a train ride, with political intrigue mixed in for good measure — everything excellently handled by the absolute master of delightful cinematic crime and foul-play.)
Added 1961: Very good (Good as he was in 1938, Hitchcock is far better now, and, contrary to popular opinion, his American work greatly surpasses his British — and this is a fair example.)
TO CATCH A THIEF (1955; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: Very good* (Delightfully conceived, sophisticated, amusing and extremely entertaining romantic-thriller about the former jewel thief it takes to catch a thief; charmingly played by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, with a striking assist from the French Riviera, beautifully color photographed.)
Added 1963: (Truly a marvelous little picture: so leisurely, self-assured, slick, classy, and personal.)
Added 1965: (Not one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but far above the usual entertainment, and not without its wicked overtones, especially in the Kelly characterization.)
THE 39 STEPS (1935; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: Excellent- (Completely enjoyable, clever, witty, exciting and suspenseful spy-thriller, a perfect Hitchcockian blend of sex, comedy, mystery and foreign intrigue.)
Added 1961: (This is a particularly good early Hitchcock, quite as fine and personal as his early American work; but he has deepened so much.)
THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1955: Good- (Charming, irreverent, whimsical little Hitchcock film about a body named Harry, whose trouble is that he’s dead, and the slightly wacky foursome who try to decide what to do about it. Wry, leisurely, stunningly photographed during autumn in Vermont; light entertainment, lovely to look at, easy to forget.)
Added 1962: (This picture looks better today than it did when it came out: it seems to me like Hitchcock’s parody of his own guilt theme that runs through his work. Here is a dead man and everyone thinks he is guilty of killing him, but none of them did, though all of them helped. Rather cynical, strangely repetitive, and certainly private, this is not one of my favorite Hitchcocks, but it certainly is good.)
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956; d: Alfred Hitchcock).
1956: (Long, compelling, suspenseful, very well acted and brilliantly directed Hitchcock thriller about the adventures in Morocco and London of an American couple whose young son is kidnapped to keep them quiet about some sinister political machinations. James Stewart and Doris Day play the married pair expertly and Hitchcock keeps a tight rein on the proceedings.)
Added 1963: Excellent* (A fascinating Hitchcockian attack on complacency, far superior to his earlier (1935) version of the same story, more personal, entertaining, less self-conscious, and throughly enthralling. It is quite incredible how beautifully the Master builds his tension and manipulates his audience’s emotions as easily as a sculptor molds his clay.)