Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Golden Age of Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchock's career as a director went back to the Silent Era. He directed his first film all the way back in 1922. And while Hitchcock produced a number of classics throughout the years (The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage, The 39 Steps, and Rebecca among them), I have always thought that he hit his stride in the years from 1951 to 1963. These were the years when, in my humble opinion, Hitchcock made his greatest films.

Hitchcock's best era began in 1951 with the release of Strangers on a Train. The film dealt with the novel premise of two strangers meeting on a train who then discuss exchanging murders--psychotic Bruno would kill tennis pro's Guy's wife (Guy wants to divorce to marry his paramour), while Guy would kill Bruno's overbearing father. The idea is that without any clear motive, both would evade suspicion. Hitchcock's directorial prowess was at its peak, while both Farley Granger (as Guy) and Robert Walker (as Bruno) give excellent performances.

In 1953 Hitchcock's I Confess was released. This was followed in 1954 by another one of Hitchcock's greatest movies, Dial M for Murder. Like Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder has a novel premise. In this case, the movie is almost entirely from the murderer's perspective. Like tennis pro Guy from Strangers on a Train, former tennis pro Tony (Ray Milland) would like to see his wife dead. Unlike Guy, Tony actually intends to go through with it. His wife Margot (Grace Kelly) has been carrying on an affair with mystery writer Mark (Robert Cummings) for some time. And that whole time Tony has been plotting his revenge. Indeed, Tony believes he has concocted the perfect murder. Unfortunately for Tony, he did count on a few tiny details that would undo him... Dial M for Murder tends to be a bit talky and does not totally escape its origins as a stage play. That having been said, however, Hitchcock's direction is again at its peak and the actors' performances are top notch.

It was with Rear Window in 1954 that Alfred Hitchcock really hit his stride. Rear Window deals with a theme that recurs throughout Hitchcock's career--that of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. In this case, photographer Jeff Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), temporarily wheelchair bound with a broken leg, is convinced that he has witnessed a murder from his rear window. Alongside Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho, Rear Window is definitely one of Hitchcock's greatest film. His direction is at its absolute best. Nearly the entire movie takes place in Jeff's apartment, and yet Hitchcock makes incredible use of that location. He lets us look through Jeff's binoculars at the apartments across from his rear view window and lets our eyes roam about the apartment. What is more is that the performances are top notch, from Jimmy Stewart as Jeff to Grace Kelly as his girl friend to Thelma Ritter as Jeffs nurse Stella. Of course, these performance would be nothing without a top notch script. The screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, is full of twists and turns and a fine attention to detail.

As great as Rear Window is, it would soon be matched, if not surpassed, by Vertigo, released in 1958. Vertigo begins simply enough, with old college pal Tom Helmore (Gavin Elster) hiring detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) to watch his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak). Scottie, who is deathly afraid of heights, slowly becomes obssessed with Madeline. From there the plot grows more complex and soon nothing is as it seems. Jimmy Stewart gives a great performance as Scottie, at once trying to come to grips with his past and falling in love with Madeline. Hitchcock makes great use of San Francisco as a backdrop (the worst place in the world for an acrophobe like Scottie). What is more, Hitchcock sustains a atmosphere of suspense throughout the movie. Even the score of Vertigo is excellent.

Nineteen fifty eight and 1959 seem to have been Hitchcock's best years, as 1959 saw the release of another masterpiece, North By Northwest. North By Northwest once more finds an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill has the misfortune of being mistaken for a spy. This leads him to a cross country chase where he is pursued by both enemy agents and our own government. North By Northwest is Hitchcock's best spy thriller, with plenty of suspense, plenty of thrills, and even a good deal of action. Indeed, except for the shower scene in Psycho, the scene of Thornhill fleeing from a plane is perhaps the most famous Hitchcock's most famous.

It was the following year, 1960, that saw the release of Psyco. Hitchcock had not ventured into the horror genre since he'd directed The Lodger in 1927, yet he directed Psycho as if he was born to direct horror films. Norman Bates and the Bates Motel have both become a part of pop culture, while the shower scene is one of the most famous scenes from any film. Psycho was considered intense in its day and even now, after the gore drenched spectacles of the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, it still packs a punch. With only a hint of blood and not one point where one actually sees the knife contact Marion Crane's body, Hitchcock created something absolutely terrifying with the shower scene.

In 1963 Hitchcock made another horror film, in this case The Birds. The Birds is a tale of nature gone wild, as huge numbers of birds (everything from gulls to crows) descend on the small town of Bodega Bay and begin attacking people. Beautiful socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren), visiting from San Franscisco, finds herself in the middle of this feathery apocalypse. In some respects The Birds is more frightening even than Psycho, with such scenes as school children fleeing swarms of attacking birds.

These are not the only films of note that Hitchcock made between the years of 1951 to 1963. During this era Hitchcock also made the dark comedy The Trouble With Harry and the caper movie To Catch a Thief. It was also during many of these years that Alfred Hitchcock Presents was in production. There are two common misconceptions about this series. One is that Hitchcock was actively involved in the series' production. The other is that he had almost nothing to do with the show beyond his introductions. The truth is somewhere in between. Hitchcock directed 17 episodes of the series (roughly an average of two episodes per season). In fact, Hitchcock directed some of the best remembered episodes, among them "The Case of Mr. Pelham (in which the unfortunate Mr. Pelham finds his life is being taken over by a double)," "Lamb to the Slaughter (in which a housewife kills her husband with a leg of lamb)," and "Arthur (in which a gentelman farmer murders his lady love and disposes of the evidence in a unique way)."

Nineteen sixty four saw the release of Marne. And while in retrospect the movie is better than what critics believed it to be at that time, it still falls short of the films which preceed it. Following Marnie, Hitchcock seems to have lost some of the magic he had possessed from 1951 to 1963. Never again he would make films of the level of quality of Rear Window, Vertigo, or North By Northwest. Regardless, even if Hitchcock had made no classics prior to 1951, he would still be remembered for the remarkable movies he made from 1951 to 1963. The fact that he had made many fine films before this period only proves that he was indeed one of the greatest directors of all time.

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