“Murder, mysteries and crimes of passion.” We would argue there’s a bit more to it than that, but if you had to distill the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock into just three elements, that’s a pretty good place to start. Few directors can come within spitting distance of an oeuvre encompassing some of the greatest films of all time, including “The 39 Steps,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window” and of course “Psycho.” He’s also one of the most memorable of filmmakers in terms of his public persona, with a capacity for charming, grandiloquent speechifying and a rapier wit that seemed to let his audiences know he was in on the joke even as he delighted in terrifying them. Hitchcock’s legacy has loomed large over the last half-century of American film, directly influencing everyone from his friend and peer Francois Truffaut (see “The Soft Skin” if you haven’t already; it’s headed to The Criterion Collection in March) to the modern-day thrillers of David Fincher.
A 55-minute documentary regarding Hitchcock from the “Living Famously” series in 2003 has recently resurfaced online (via Eyes On Cinema), and it’s essential viewing for any Hitch die-hard, or even for someone who’s just now undergoing the joyous initiation of watching his films for the first time.
Hitchcock was notable not just for his mastery of cinematic technique, but for exposing his most disturbing phobias to audiences worldwide. During his formative years, we can pick up on several autobiographical elements that would appear in his later pictures, including a stint working in advertising (“North by Northwest”) and the lingering presence of a domineering mother figure (“Psycho”). The film compiles interviews with the likes of Martin Landau, film critic Barry Norman, as well as family and old friends in remembrance of a man for whom cinema was the greatest possible escape.
Hitch grew up in a middle-class family (his father was a grocer), and is described herein as a young man who was “an overweight loner with a boring clerical job.” But beneath the drab trappings of his upbringing was a fevered and hungry imagination, one that came to fruition in “The 39 Steps,” a crackling spy thriller that went on to cement many of Hitchcock’s pet themes (men ensnared in unfathomable intrigue, deception, the threat of violence). Hitch’s high water mark came during his indomitable run from the late 50’s to the early ’60s, which included “The Wrong Man,” “Vertigo,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.” The man now known forever as “the Master of Suspense” also worked with a rotating roster of some of the greatest actors of the time, including Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman (who he was believed to be in love with), and Cary Grant, whom the director frequently used as a more handsome, adventurous version of himself.
The doc is interesting less for its examination of Hitch’s many achievements and innovations, which are film-nerd legend by this point, than it is for its character profile of this droll, intelligent and withdrawn man who seemed to have an almost hard-wired understanding of how to creep people out. Watching clips from Hitchcock’s various pictures —the death-defying opening chase of “Vertigo”; the infamous, chilling boat scene from “Strangers on a Train”— it’s easier to see just how brazenly ahead of his time he was. Yet for all the macabre imagery he put onscreen, Hitchcock was by all accounts a charming, well-mannered fellow who read voraciously and largely kept to himself. In a clip from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” his seminal suspense TV program, we see Hitch dryly refer to himself as a sex symbol, and it’s clear he was a man with a wicked sense of humor about the world and about himself. It’s because he was aware of his gifts as a master craftsman: he was playing his audience like a fiddle, and people loved every minute of it. “Living Dangerously” is an engrossing profile of one of cinema’s biggest, brashest and most unforgettable personalities —watch the whole thing below.