Tuesday 24 April 2018

Icy blondes, suave spies & psycho killers -- Hitch rules!

Is Alfred Hitchcock overrated? More than 30 years after his death, he seems to be more popular than ever. He's probably the most famous film director of all, and his work is awarded the status normally reserved for arthouse classics.

Later this year Anthony Hopkins will portray him in a biopic about the making of perhaps his most famous film, Psycho. And during this year's London 2012 Festival, a major cultural event coinciding with the Olympics, every single one of his films will be shown in the first ever complete Hitchcock retrospective.

Hitchcock is almost unique in having managed to combine the demands of commercial studio filmmaking with recurring motifs and personal themes.

When he was knocking out a couple of films a year in Hollywood in the 1940s, he was seen as little more than a talented genre director. It was Francois Truffaut who first mooted the idea that Hitchcock was not merely some studio hack but an auteur whose work should be taken seriously as art and considered as a whole.

Hitchcock, of course, was happy to concur with this, and indulged himself in a series of backslapping interviews with Truffaut in the mid-1960s.

To some observers it all seemed a bit much: after all, Hitchcock made thrillers and whodunnits with sadistic and even misogynistic undertones.

From his very earliest films, Alfred Hitchcock returns time and again to the themes of mistaken identity, wrongful accusations, guilt, mad mothers, cold women and sexuality sublimated into violence.

And while critics will argue that Hitchcock rarely wrote his own screenplays, he did deliberately seek out stories containing these themes.

These recurring motifs may well stem from his strict childhood and maternal Irish Catholic ancestry. His mother used to make him stand at the end of her bed confessing his sins; his father once sent him to the local police station and had him locked in a cell for childhood misdemeanours.

Tough love, but Hitch's parents did film-lovers a favour. Without these tics and compulsions, Alfred Hitchcock might not have grown up to combine the standard crime thriller with the emerging science of psychoanalysis to such memorable effect.

He fully deserves his exalted reputation, and left behind a raft of brilliant and entirely distinctive films to prove it. Here are my favourites, and feel free to disagree with me.

The 39 Steps (1935)

By the mid-30s Alfred Hitchcock was really coming into his own as a film-maker, and his adaptation of John Buchan's bestselling adventure novel was entertaining and accomplished.

Robert Donat played Canadian war hero Richard Hannay, who goes on the run after a dead body is discovered in his London apartment and he's wrongly accused of murder. After boarding a train to Scotland, he kidnaps a beautiful young woman (Madeline Carroll) who becomes his accomplice.

Full of wit and tension, Hitchcock's 39 Steps was a playful and beautifully paced thriller that reached a memorable climax at the top of Big Ben.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Hitchcock liked trains and disappearing people, and combined them in this gripping romantic thriller. Margaret Lockwood starred as Iris, a young English woman who's on holiday in Europe when she becomes embroiled in international espionage.

After she meets an elderly lady called Miss Froy on a train, the woman disappears, and all the other passengers deny she ever existed. It emerges that Miss Froy was carrying vital information hidden in the bars of a song, a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin.

The Lady Vanishes was a big hit in the US, and for its director, Hollywood beckoned.

Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock's first American film was done under contract to David Selznick, and is not typical of his mid-career work.

A heightened and almost camp retelling of Daphne du Maurier's gothic melodrama, Rebecca starred Joan Fontaine as an innocent young woman who marries a moody aristocrat called Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).

Her dream turns sour when she returns to Maxim's Cornwall mansion and finds herself oppressed by the shadow of his late wife, Rebecca.

Hitchcock cleverly shot 'in camera' so that Selznick wouldn't be able to re-cut the film afterwards, and refused to carry out some of the producer's more excessive suggestions. The result is a perfectly pitched classic.

Suspicion (1941)

Though Hitchcock was unhappy about the relatively happy ending to Suspicion that was imposed on him by the studio bosses, it's a fine thriller with some unforgettable moments.

Joan Fontaine is Lina McLaidlaw, a plain, sweet girl who marries a charming cad called Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) despite her family's protests.

Johnny promises to change his ways, but Lina suspects he might be trying to kill her to take advantage of her inheritance.

Hitchcock managed to maintain the uncertainty about Johnny's motives going right 'til the end, and in the film's most memorable scene he climbs the stairs bearing a glass of milk for his wife that seems to glow from within and may or may not be poisoned.

Notorious (1946)

Cary Grant was one of Hitchcock's favourite actors, and the director fought tooth and nail with David Selznick to get him cast alongside Ingrid Bergman in this dark psychological drama set in postwar South America.

Grant plays TR Devlin, a US government agent who falls in love with Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the beautiful daughter of a convicted Nazi spy. When Alicia agrees to seduce a man called Sebastian in order to infiltrate a Nazi ring in Brazil, Devlin is outraged and treats her with contempt. But when her life is threatened by an unexpected discovery, he faces a race against time to save her.

In Notorious, Hitchcock skillfully juggled the themes of trust and faith with the demands of an espionage thriller, and some consider it his most perfectly realised film.

Vertigo (1958)

With its complex, morbid plot about a man infatuated with a dead woman, Vertigo confused some critics and was not well received on its release. It's since been reassessed as a classic, and for me is Hitchcock's finest film of all.

Shot in the widescreen VistaVision format in beautiful muted colour, Vertigo starred James Stewart as Scotty Ferguson, an unhappily retired San Francisco police officer whose fear of heights inadvertently led to the death of a colleague.

An old friend hires him to follow his beautiful wife (Kim Novak), whom he says is having a breakdown: Scotty falls for her, and is devastated when she kills herself. But as always in Hitchcock films, things are not as they seem.

Guilt, sexual obsession and primal fears are memorably explored in this gripping and splendid looking film that is, Psycho aside, Hitch at his very darkest.

Psycho (1960)

Arguably the first serial-killer movie and the granddaddy of every slasher movie, Psycho nearly didn't get made at all. When Paramount read Hitch's script for a film about a transvestite motel killer they considered it "too repulsive" and refused to back it.

So Hitchcock used his own money, and crew and sets from his Hitchcock Presents TV show to keep costs below $1m.

Crucially, this arrangement also gave him complete creative freedom, and he excelled himself in the staging of what would become iconic set-piece scenes.

Janet Leigh was the flawed heroine who embezzles $40,000 and makes the big mistake of pulling into the Bates Motel. Anthony Perkins is Norman, the seemingly sweet manager who has a serious mother fixation and a love of sharp knives.

Psycho's three-minute shower scene took a week to shoot, and contains over 50 separate cuts.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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