I’ve been taking a class this semester on Alfred Hitchcock, and I wanted to share my final essay on his work. During the last weekend the class met, we watched some of my all-time favorite Hitchcock films: North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.
We were assigned to write an essay about the films and what they meant to us, and I felt that people who follow Confessions of a Movie Snob might be slightly interested in reading it.
For those of you who are wondering, we will most certainly be doing an Alfred Hitchcock episode in the future, but, in the meantime, enjoy some of my thoughts and experiences that revolve around the master, Alfred Hitchcock:
I’ve been a fan of Hitchcock for many years. He is arguably the most influential director in the history of cinema, having influenced the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, and countless others. His impact can be attributed to his lengthy 50 year career as a film director in Great Britain and Hollywood, covering such dynamic films from “The Lodger” in 1927, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” in 1941, to “Frenzy” in 1972. During his career, Hitchcock showed that he could direct all kinds of films, from romantic comedies to thrillers to outright horror films. It is in the four-year microcosm of 1950 to 1963 that we can see the dynamic range of Alfred Hitchcock, and see several films that vary in size, scope, and tone that have gone on for generations to shape and mold modern directors today.
I grew up watching James Bond movies when I was a kid. I remember vividly watching “Dr. No” and “Thunderball” with my father in our family room some evenings, munching away on popcorn and not catching the overt innuendos present in the sexually charged films. I was young and didn’t notice that kind of thing. A “James Bond” film is a genre in and of itself, much like a “Hitchcock” film is as well. Little did I know when I was young and wide-eyed sitting on my parent’s living room floor that a man who would eventually become one of my all-time favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, made a “James Bond” movie three years before “Dr. No” exploded across movie screens around the world. In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock released “North by Northwest,” a glamorous Hollywood production with huge stars and exotic locations, featuring megastars Cary Grant and James Mason. Watching this film for the umpteenth time, I realized it was a giant spectacle, showcasing huge panoramic set-pieces and notorious villains. It had action, chases, and all kinds of thrills – just like a James Bond film. “North by Northwest” had to be a clear influence on directors like Terence Young and Guy Hamilton, but it’s not a connection one generally thinks of when performing a comparison between a film like “North by Northwest” and “From Russia with Love.” However, it’s clear that the famous crop-duster sequence in “North by Northwest” had to be an influence on Terrence Young when he filmed the scene in “From Russia with Love” when James Bond is terrorized by a helicopter. It is this kind of creativity that a director like Hitchcock cultivated in his peers. I’ve grown to love and cherish “North by Northwest” for its charm, wit, and pure Hollywood style. Where the sexuality and action were front and center in James Bond films of the time, “North by Northwest” was subtle in its panache. Hitchcock’s sleight of hand in the sexual tones of the film is startling when realizing that “North by Northwest” was released in 1959, in the middle of Code-era Hollywood. Hitchcock was able to do a huge film with huge stars and control every aspect of the movie with flair and deliberate execution.
Fascinatingly, one year after releasing “North by Northwest,” Hitchcock does a small, low-budget, black-and-white “slasher” film in “Psycho.” Notwithstanding the mesmerizing performance by Anthony Perkins, whose iconic portrayal of Norman Bates was surely in the mind of Anthony Hopkins when he slid behind the Plexiglas in “Silence of the Lambs” as Hannibal Lecter, Hitchcock shows filmmakers and film-goers alike that you can tell a compelling, memorable story without spending a large amount of money. Turning away from the huge sparkle of “North by Northwest,” the grittiness and edge of “Psycho” shows us a surreal world of madness and murder. Hitchcock, who made Perry Mason menacing in “Rear Window,” takes a small, lanky nice-looking man like Anthony Perkins, and turns him into a terrifying powerhouse that sets a benchmark for all psychotic murderers in films to come for the next 30 years. In particular, the various scenes in Norman’s parlor are quite compelling, with the looming, fearsome birds of prey hanging high on the ceiling, and the timid, shy woodland birds nesting on the furniture. The Parlor itself is a representation of Norman’s mind, a thing that is serene, yet menacing with a miasmic presence of oppression and fear that hovers over it in each scene, like Norman’s mother hovers over Norman even after her death, and how the stolen money hovers over Marion Crane when she is making her escape from Arizona. Not only did Hitchcock create a terrifying movie, he also sets an example for filmmakers that you can scare people without disgusting them, a lesson many horror directors have forgotten in the last 30 years.
Finally, Hitchcock ends his four year journey with “The Birds.” Again showing how dynamic he can be as a filmmaker, Hitchcock presents us with what seems like a tried-and-true “Hitchcockian” formulaic film with a pretty, sexually aggressive blond and a boy who lives with his domineering, overprotective mother. However, Hitchcock pulls back the curtain to reveal that he’s just playing a trick on us – the boy is really a successful man, not “castrated” at all in his ability to get things done, the woman actually is looking for a maternal figure in her life, and needing some stability and happiness, and the mother is just concerned about not being needed any more. There are no sinister motives from any of the characters in the film whatsoever. Everyone turns out to be genuine and forthcoming in their complex, but normal, personalities. It’s then as if Hitchcock decides that this world is clearly run its course, and brings those birds back from Norman’s parlor in “Psycho” and lets them loose on the perfect world being created in “The Birds.” This film feels like a natural follow-up to “Psycho” in that when Norman is sitting there, staring us down at the end of the film, he is about to share with us a metaphorical fable about what happened in his mind that caused him to do what he’s done. In that sense, “The Birds” is an allegory to a descent into madness in one’s own mind. Everything seems fine, and then an unstoppable, but familiar force descends and throws your perfect world of Bodega Bay into chaos. Not only does Hitchcock turn heels and, instead of giving us a clear villain like he did in Norman Bates, a villain with a face and tangibility that acts like a force of nature, he gives us a force of nature that acts like a tangible villain in “The Birds.”
Hitchcock is probably one of the strongest influences on film in history. His silhouette acts more like a shadow, stretching across decades of filmmaking providing shelter and inspiration to countless generations of filmmakers in decades past, and decades to come. Hitchcock left a legacy of fantastic work that is, luckily, still available for consumption to brand new audiences over 30 years after his death. It takes a true visionary to create something that is timeless, and Hitchcock has done that, like DaVinci with his paintings, Michelangelo with his sculptures, and Beethoven with his music.