For many years, the only image that I’d associate with the name “Alfred Hitchcock” was that of a woman (Janet Leigh) screaming in a shower as she was being murdered. I didn’t even know the name of the film. It’s just the mental image I’d return to everytime Hitchcock was brought up in conversation. Over the years, I learned the name of the film (it was Psycho, by the way), as well as the legacy of its acclaimed director, the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock. I learned that he was one of Hollywood’s most influential directors, that he was hailed as the Master of Suspsense, and that he’s directed over 70 films in his lifetime. Despite this, it took me nearly 19 years of my life to finally watch a few of his movies (as recommended by Audiences Everywhere’s David Hart here), and I immediately became regretful that it took that long to view Hitchcock’s presentations.
“Enlightening” would be the best word to describe what it’s like to watch Hitchcock’s films for the first time in 2017. It’s like discovering the creator of French fries and eating their simple yet ingenious creation, after exclusively eating McDonald’s products your entire life. There’s an elegance in Hitchcock’s relative simplicity (in comparison to contemporary mainstream film), but it’s done with a keen attentiveness to craft that it’s no surprise that his films have influenced generations of filmmakers.
This is most evidently seen in Hitchcock’s earliest film on the list, The 39 Steps. “Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story,” Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) says, mere moments before being dragged into a globetrotting adventure full of backstabs, double crosses, and a lot of police chases. Hannay, an innocent man, is forced into a number of situations; to become a fugitive from the police and authority figures, to deliver an introduction at a political rally he has no clue about, and to partner with a woman (Madeleine Carroll) he is handcuffed to and who believes he is a murderer. Hitchcock crafted a thrilling nightmare and gave us the perfect modern thriller back in 1935, and genre filmmakers still have been trying to capture the same spirit ever since.
The Trouble with Harry, on the other hand, showcases Hitchcock’s range as a director. Yes, the film still features a dead body and a murder mystery to be unraveled, but the film unravels that thread in an unorthodox way. Hitchcock, in the film, navigates genres seamlessly. The film traverses genres such as romantic-comedy, murder mystery, drama, and thriller within scenes and sometimes even within moments. What’s astonishing is that Hitchcock seems to balance these genres that don’t have any business together in order to create a unique flavor altogether– Hitchcock’s cynical, darkly comedic take on getting to know thy neighbor.
Similarly, Hitchcock is able to balance a couple genres in one of his later films, Suspicion. After half of the film following Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) and Johnnie Aysgarth’s (Cary Grant) meet-cute and romcom-esque blooming love, the film takes a sharp turn into psychological thriller territory. Hitchcock tenders the transition from one genre to the other so carefully, that “murder suspicion” is surprisingly a natural development in the plot and of the character. Despite an underdeveloped budding romance (all Aysgarth did to make Lina fall in love with him was flirt in her direction – a product of its time, no doubt), it is a fundamental in the spousal psychological thriller genre, which, for some reason, is a sub-genre in fiction.
Hitchcock returned to examining a relationship within the psychological thriller genre a decade later with Vertigo. The editing and terrific acting are what stood out in my first viewing of Vertigo. The story was quite straightforward up until I got to the twist. (Side note: I finally got to experience an unspoiled twist for a classic Hollywood film.) Hitchcock just forces the audience to fall more deeply invested into Scottie Ferguson’s (Jimmy Stewart) existential fear of heights (and growing old) after that. It’s almost a requirement to view it multiple times.
Rear Window might’ve been my favorite to experience for the first time in 2017. Much has been said and written about how exceptional it’s acting, writing, and directing are, how Hitchcock is able to do so much with a lot of self-imposed limitations and confinements, and how Hitchcock is still fully able to make the film tense and suspenseful. I completely agree with what has been said and written in that regard. The highlight for me was realizing halfway through the film that I’ve already seen this film parodied and paid homage to on television shows like The Simpsons, Castle, and White Collar. It was quite the experience watching Rear Window for the first time, with those series in mind. They influenced my prediction of what the twist ending would be, but the real shocker was that there was no twist ending. The film would’ve worked with a twist ending that emphasized its commentary on voyeurism (for example: there was no actual murder), but the film is fine, perfect even, in its current form.
The fact that Hitchcock films have had a great influence on contemporary filmmakers is what made watching Hitchcock for the first time in 2017 such a fun exercise. It’s enlightening and enriching to discover what film tropes and conventions exactly filmmakers have been reinventing, subverting, paying homage to, and parodying all these years. It’s also fulfilling to watch them in films made by a master of his craft.