A Hitch In Time

A Hitch In Time
Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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There is a whole school of thought on the influence of German Expressionism in Hitchcock’s work, but I won’t belabor the point because I’ve barely scratched the surface of Hitch’s genius as it is, and this is an article, not a damned book.
If there is a downside to being a Genius, it would be that I am never satisfied. I am in constant search for new experiences to expand my horizons; new foods, new beers, new movies, new Google searches for pictures of my favorite actresses in various stages of undress. I cannot allow myself to settle, to fall into a comfortable routine, to take to my heart any one thing to call a "favorite." I view having a favorite anything as settling, which to my mind is a slow form of death. As soon as I have a favorite something, I feel as though I've excluded everything else in that category.

To be sure, there are things I like more than others. I enjoy Thai cuisine more than the typical Americanized stuff that passes for Chinese food in this country. I like Jazz more than Pop music. Given the choice, I'd rather go to a hockey game than a basketball game. All things considered, I greatly prefer actress Tatiana Maslany to any of the current crop of "hot" celebrities. But these are more general in nature, and not, to my mind, settling on a favorite.

There are, of course, exceptions. I am a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, which I guess would make them my favorite baseball team (along with the Carolina League's Salem Red Sox, my local nine). I happen to appreciate the show The Sopranos more than anything else that has ever been on television, even current favorites like Orphan Black and TURN: Washington's Spies. And I am a dyed-in-the-wool Coca-Cola fan who would rather drink my own sweat than to drink a Pepsi.

Then, there is Vertigo. Made in 1958, and starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, Vertigo was greeted with tepid critical reception and mediocre box office. It has come to be considered Alfred Hitchcock's masterwork, recently unseating Citizen Kane as the best movie ever made on the British publication Sight and Sound's list, but at the time it was considered a disappointment. Hitchcock bought the rights to it and four other films (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, Rope, and The Trouble with Harry) to leave as a legacy to his daughter, Patricia, and as a result, the film was unavailable until it resurfaced in the early Eighties. I saw the film for the first time in the late Nineties, after it was restored by Robert Harris and James Katz.

If I had a favorite movie, it would be Vertigo. And since I subscribe to the auteur theory (which states that the director is the 'author' of a film. Subscriptions to this theory are available for $9.99 per year in the AAJ gift shop), my favorite director would be Alfred Hitchcock.

Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE, was born on August 13, 1899, in Leytonstone in London (like I know where that is). His father was a green grocer and poulterer, which is just fun to say, which may have contributed to young Alfred's lifelong love of food and subsequent battle with his weight. It is here I sympathize with young Alfred, as someone who has battled with weight my entire life; we both endured lonely and somewhat sheltered childhoods because of it. Only, he went on to make some of the greatest movies in cinema history, and I'm sitting here writing about him while eating the other half of last night's baked ziti.

There is the popular tale of a young Alfred being sent to the local police precinct by his father, with a note instructing the officer to lock him up as punishment for misbehaving. Though only detained for five minutes, he still had time to get a tattoo and learned to play the harmonica. This brief incarceration supposedly instilled in him a lifelong distrust of police and set up the recurring themes of wrongful accusations in his films. A film fan through his teens, he nevertheless trained as a draftsman at the London County Council School of Engineering and Chip Shop. Afterwards, he went to work for an electrical cable firm called Henley's, where he worked as an advertising designer and draftsman. This early experience certainly set the stage for Hitchcock's meticulous storyboarding of every single scene in his films. It was also here that young Alfred began writing, mostly short stories for the company's in-house publication.

At twenty, Hitchcock finally broke into the film business as a title card designer for the American firm Famous Players-Lasky (the production division of Paramount Pictures) at their London office at Islington Studios. When Famous Players pulled out of town in 1922 due to lack of fame, Hitchcock remained as part of the studio staff. It took him five years to work his way from designing title cards to directing, during which he worked as a screenwriter, assistant director, and art director under director Graham Cutts. He was also the fishmonger for the studio's in-house craft services department* .

It was during one of his collaborations with Cutts that Hitchcock had the opportunity to work on a film in Germany. He witnessed a portion of the making of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh in 1924 and used many of Murnau's set design ideas in his own productions. He was also influenced by Fritz Lang's 1921 film Destiny. There is a whole school of thought on the influence of German Expressionism in Hitchcock's work, but I won't belabor the point because I've barely scratched the surface of Hitch's genius as it is, and this is an article, not a damned book.

Moving forward.

Hitchcock's first efforts were unsuccessful. It wasn't until 1927's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, about the search for a Jack the Ripper-like killer, the he finally achieved success. In the interim, he married Alma Reville, then his assistant director. Theirs would be a lifelong collaborative effort, and many of Hitchcock's films benefitted immeasurably from Reville's keen eye in the editing room and her uncanny instincts as a script doctor. These contributions were kept private, as Reville wished both to avoid the public eye and Britain's Genius tax (which dates to the time of King James I, and is also known as "Shakespeare's shilling").

Hitchcock's tenth film, 1929's Blackmail, is considered Britain's first talking picture. It is also notable for featuring one of Hitch's longest cameo appearances. As you may know, one of his directorial trademarks was appearing briefly in almost all his films. This goes back to the early days of his career, when the crew often served double duty as extras. Part of the fun of a Hitchcock film is spotting his cameo. In Vertigo, for the record, he can be seen outside walking past Gavin Elster's office.

The Thirties were kind to Hitchcock. Some of his most iconic films of the first part of his career were made during the decade, including The Man Who Knew Too Much, the remake of The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. It was also The Lady Vanishes that established two more of Hitch's trademarks: the "Hitchcock blonde" in Madeline Carroll, and the MacGuffin, in a stolen set of design plans. The Hitchcock Blonde was the often icy and unachievable female lead that maybe reached her zenith as Madeline Elster in Vertigo. And the MacGuffin was a seemingly important plot point that later turned out to be insignificant.

By the end of the Thirties, Hitchcock was considered by many to be Britain's finest and roundest director. He won the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director. This is the only time he received an award for directing, despite being nominated for five Academy Awards (his only Oscar came as a non-competitive Irving G. Thalberg Award). This level of success finally brought him to the Hollywood big leagues and in 1940, he signed a seven-year contract with independent producer David O. Selznick who was fresh off Gone with the Wind and still filled with monumental hubris.

The difficulties between Hitchcock and Selznick were obvious from the start. Selznick loved to tinker with the films he produced, often spending marathon sessions in the editing room crafting a film to his liking (the way he had done GWTW). Hitchcock carefully storyboarded much of his film before he shot a single frame. Or, he may not have; there exist different schools of thought on his level of involvement in every bit of minutia in his films. He then filmed only his version of the film, even his alternate takes only fit together in the final film the way he envisioned. This frustrated the interloping Selznick to no end, who carped about Hitch's "goddamn jigsaw cutting."

The years with Selznick proved mostly successful for Hitchcock, even though he was lent out to larger studios more often than he worked with Selznick. Their first collaboration, Rebecca, won the Oscar for Best Picture at the lucky 13th Academy Awards held in 1941. It was during his time with Selznick he made, mostly for other studios, such films as Notorious, Spellbound, Shadow of a Doubt, and Lifeboat. Selznick paid him the highest compliment his ego would allow, saying that Hitch was the only director he'd trust with a film.

I once read a piece, that I wish I could properly attribute, about the varying types of genius. There is early genius, like the precocious Orson Welles, who made Citizen Kane his first time out at the age of 25 and was considered washed-up by 40. Then, there is late genius, to which category I believe Hitchcock belongs. After making movies for virtually his entire adult life, he hit his artistic stride in his fifties. This coincided with the 1950s, a decade that saw some of his finest work. It is no coincidence the Vertigo was made during this period. But Hitch also made such signature films as Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder (Hitch's lone experiment with then-novel 3D), To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest, and the boldly experimental Rear Window.

Moderately interesting trivia: So contentious was his time with David O. Selznick that Hitchcock made his villain in Rear Window (played by Raymond Burr) look as much like the famed producer as possible.

It seems to me that Hitchcock must've had some sort of agreement with the studios through the Fifties. For every standard issue Hitchcock thriller, such as Dial M for Murder, Hitch got to make a more experimental film, like Rear Window. It might be no coincidence, then, that he followed Vertigo with the more standard (for Hitchcock) and commercially successful North by Northwest.

Obviously, the standout piece from this era is Vertigo. Otherwise, this whole article will have been a MacGuffin in and of itself. Featuring frequent Hitchcock star Jimmy Stewart as an acrophobic (fear of heights, or acronyms) retired police inspector who is hired by an old college acquaintance to follow his wife, played by Kim Novak, whom he suspects believes she is possessed by the spirit of a distant relative. All that, however, is the MacGuffin. The real story is one of obsession and how Stewart's character is drawn into a warped relationship with Novak's character(s). It is Novak in this film who is, I believe, the apogee of the Hitchcock Blonde. Ultimately, the film is about how sexual obsession destroyed two people's lives. Many critics call it Hitchcock's most starkly personal film.

Warning: The previous paragraph contained spoilers.

Vertigo, to me, represents everything that Hitchcock had learned as a filmmaker. It is as close to a perfect film as I've seen, despite its perceived flaws (many felt that Hitchcock gave away a huge plot twist too early in the film). It's deep without being obscure, artistic but not artsy, experimental without compromising the story or the entertainment value. Unfortunately, it was neither particularly commercially nor critically successful at the time. And then came Psycho.

Volumes have been written about Psycho, which has become so influential as to be clichéd, so I need not spend too many words on it. It contains what most consider to be the representative Hitchcock Blonde in Janet Leigh, and one of his best-known MacGuffins, the stolen $40,000. It also features the most famous soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann, the composer of some of Hitch's most iconic soundtracks. Whether you've seen the movie or not, you certainly know the dissonant EEK! EEK! EEK! of the famous shower scene. It still turns up from time to time, usually in unfunny sitcoms to indicate an unpleasant surprise or to illustrate the bizarre behavior of a peripheral character.

The Sixties represented both some of Hitchcock's most indelible films, the aforementioned Psycho and The Birds, and a diminished output due to the encroaching effects of age and worsening health. His other films during the decade were not well received; Marnie, Topaz and Torn Curtain may represent the residue of what was left of his considerable abilities after his stellar output in his fifties. They say that a light bulb burns brightest just before it burns out, and that may be true of Hitchcock, but that moment as far as I'm concerned is Vertigo. Psycho and The Birds are just shadows of that light.

Hitch only made two more films, Frenzy and Family Plot, and neither are particularly well-regarded in the Hitchcock canon. With the iron grip of the studio system finally broken, the film industry was in the hands of younger and more realism-inspired directors (Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas) and a more naturalistic style of acting that ran counter to Hitchcock's carefully crafted approach to film. A film like Vertigo simply could not have happened had he tried to make it in 1978; at least, it could not have happened the way it did. Though, the chances of a nude scene would have increased exponentially.

But then.

Beyond film, Hitchcock leveraged his image into its own celebrity. From 1955-65, he hosted the television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents (later The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, then Alfred and Cher). He lent his name to several series of books, including several anthologies of short stories and a set of juvenile detective novels (which is how I first became acquainted with him). Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, in print since 1955, carries on Hitch's name to a generation who probably wasn't even alive when he made his last movie. And his line of pre-mixed Alfred Hitchcocktails are still a steady seller in the industry (try the Vertigo, just add rum until you become dizzy).

On April 29, 1980, Hitch died from renal failure at his home, and passed into legend. After a funeral Mass at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills, he was cremated, and his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean. Alma followed him in death in 1982. Their daughter Patricia is, as of this writing, still alive and living in California. You may remember Pat from her brief appearances in films such as Strangers on a Train and Psycho. Or, you may not. I'm not here to judge you.

Hitchcock's legacy has endured. Producer-director Sam Raimi continues to wear a jacket and tie on his film sets as a tribute to him. Generations of filmmakers have been influenced by his work, even the current generation might not know from whence the stimulus came. People who have never seen an episode of his TV show nevertheless can associate him with its theme song, "Funeral March of a Marionette." His films are still available on DVD at the local Target (where I bought my copy of Psycho), and his classics continue to find new life. I saw the Harris and Katz restored Rear Window on the big screen at my local theater not too long ago, which is as close as I can ever hope to come to the experience of seeing the movie for the first time in 1954 without putting on a suit and smelling like cigarettes and Vitalis.

He merited parodying by the redoubtable Mel Brooks, arguably at the peak of his comedic abilities, in 1977's High Anxiety. Carol Burnett took on Rebecca in a famous skit from her long-running TV series. Rear Window has been remade for TV starring the late Christopher Reeves, ripped off in numerous films and TV shows, and made again as the 2007 teen thriller Disturbia. The plots of his most famous films have been recycled ad infinitum.

Psycho merited several unfortunate sequels, a 1998 shot-for-shot remake by Gus Van Sant (who should've known better), and served as the inspiration for the current TV series prequel Bates Motel. And in 2012, the story of the making of Psycho formed the basis of the film Hitchcock, starring no less than Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Hitch and Alma (and the blindingly hot Scarlett Johansson as the equally smoking Janet Leigh). Vertigo, thankfully, has remained sacrosanct, uncopied and uncopiable.

So there you have it, kids, my de facto favorite film and director in a nutshell (if you consider 2,800 words a nutshell). Till next time, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

* No he wasn't.

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