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Friday, September 27, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock

Legendary storyteller, legendary films.

I've long insisted that modern-day motion pictures are the most viable art form known to man (stretching the definition now to include video). In effect, this one medium encompasses virtually every other art form into one, utilizing the best each has to offer into a single, highly effective, medium of expression. Likewise I've delved into the art and artists marking the best of the best in this endeavor, from my favorite, Steven Spielberg, to perhaps my least favorite, Francis Ford Coppola. Recently in reviewing the AMC (American Movie Channel) listing of the Greatest Directors of All Time, I came face to face with a glaring omission in my coverage. There, at number one, top of the list, was a man, whom I'd mentioned often, but never really written about--Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
 Hitchcock's Rebecca,
his one and only Oscar.
I could list a number of reasons for this oversight, perhaps principle among them being that I've never been a great fan of suspenseful drama. But that's really no excuse and doesn't in any way diminish the influence this groundbreaking producer/director has had on the art of film making. It's a tossup as to which should be the most legendary, the man or his films. As a Hollywood legend he ranks with D.W. Griffith, Orson Wells, David O. Selznick, Stanley Kubrick, and a few others. Like the others, Hitchcock rose to the top of his profession allowing him a great deal of control (if not total control) of his films. Like the others, he still often battled the "damned studio" bosses, not to mention, in Hitchcock's case, his frequent censorship run-ins Joseph Breen of the Motion Picture Production Code office. Yet even the preeminent studio boss and "control freak" David O. Selznick "let Hitchcock be Hitchcock." As a result of this indulgence, in 1940, Selznick Studios received a second "Best Picture" award (marking two years in a row, following GWTW) for Rebecca. Inasmuch as he already had on, Selznick graciously allowed Hitchcock to keep the statuette. Ironically, Hitchcock was competing against himself, his film, Foreign Correspondent was also nominated for "Best Picture" the same year. In what may be the all-time worst sin in AMPAS history, Hitchcock never did win an Oscar as "Best Director."

Hitchcock's first hit, 1927.
Hollywood legends have often been bigger than life, though in Hitchcock's case that might be difficult. Whether discussing his persistent cameo appearances in his films, his ending "twists," his love for shooting action sequences on location at famous landmarks, or his penchant for extremely thorough preproduction planning, Hitchcock was one of a kind. Born in 1899 in a northeast suburb of London, the man literally started at the very bottom of the 1920s British film industry. Trained as a graphic artist, he started by designing silent film title cards, moving up from there to film posters, then to writing suspenseful short stories in the company newsletter, Jesse Lasky's Famous Players Productions (later to become Paramount). Later he worked as a set designer and art director. His career as a director didn't exactly get off to a roaring start. His first two film (now lost) were never completed due to financial difficulties. His third film (Pleasure Garden, 1925) while eventually completed, was a box office dud. Hitchcock's first commercial success came in 1927, with Lodger: a Story of the London Fog (above left), said to be the first truly "Hitchcockian" film with several elements later to become his film trademarks.

Over fifty films, some familiar, some...not so much.
David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1939, turning him loose on Rebecca--one great talent recognizing another. Although Selznick had signed Hitchcock for seven films, he was really more talent than the perennial spendthrift, Selznick, could afford. After Rebecca, they made only one other film together, Spellbound, in 1945. Mostly Selznick "farmed out" Hitchcock to other studios where he directed such classics as Mr. & Mrs. Smith (RKO), Shadow of a Doubt (Universal), Lifeboat (Fox), and Notorious (RKO-Vanguard). However, it was during the 1950s when Hitchcock really came into his own, working intermittently as a free agent for Warner Brothers, Paramount, MGM, and Universal on such instantly recognizable suspense classics as Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much (a remake of his 1934 British film), Vertigo, North by Northwest (below), and finally, in 1960, his biggest hit of all (some would say his best film), Psycho.

Alfred Hitchcock was never shy about putting his own persona into his work, whether in
his many cameo appearances or in promoting his pictures.

The scream heard round the world.
If he wasn't already, Psycho made Hitchcock a millionaire--some fifteen times over, in fact--out of a total box office take of $50-million. The budget was a measly $800,000, the shooting was in black and white on a rented, unused set with a television crew. Chocolate syrup stood in for blood in the stabbing scene. The film made Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, and John Gavin household names. It also instilled a deathly fear among women of taking showers in motels. Though Hitchcock lived and evolved as a director for another twenty years, making five more outstanding films showcasing his mature style of suspenseful drama, most people are most familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock of 1950s television. Along with Walt Disney, Hitchcock was one of the few 50s film makers to recognize television as a new medium to be embraced rather than a reckless upstart to be feared. Beginning in 1955, Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired on CBS every Sunday night (later on NBC, then back to CBS, and finally back to NBC again) for a total of 361 scary episodes. Though he was executive producer of the series, and introduced each episode with his trademark "Good Evening" over the iconic strains of Funeral March of a Marionette, Hitchcock never directed a single episode.

Hitchcock's dry, macabre sense of humor was always in the forefront.
The video above is long, but fun, perhaps the best part of each night's episode.

Seldom are great directors beloved by those who work for them. Part of that can be accounted for by their perfectionist tendencies. Such masters of their craft "don't suffer fools lightly." In most cases, such film making geniuses are, at best, respected. At worst, they're hated. Tippi Hedren (star of Hitchcock's The Birds) accused Hitchcock of misogyny and of ruining her career when she resisted his sexual advances. Other actors and actresses who have worked with him defend Hitchcock, reasoning that he considered actors as "animated props." As a rising young director in England, Hitchcock is said to have referred to actors as "cattle." Years later, in an interview, when questioned about his bovine reference, Hitchcock claimed to have been misquoted. He said instead, "...actors should be treated like cattle."

Another Alfred Hitchcock cameo appearance, Lifeboat, 1944

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