Behind the brilliant Hitchcock effects: Complex insight

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Alfred Hitchcock was a master showman as well as a master moviemaker. No other director had such a familiar name or such a famous face -- introducing a popular TV series, festooned across a pulp magazine, and popping up in his won films as an "in joke" that all the world was privy to.

His image was cheerfully and meticulously self-created. Yet to describe Hitchcock glibly as "the master of suspense" is to oversimplify his talent. For one thing, he also created comedies and period dramas during his long career. For another, "suspense" is to vague a word to pigeonhole his endlessly spiraling combinations of images and emotions. In many of his greatest films, he commingled comedy and romance with mystery and the macabre, emphasizing the whimsical undercurrents of even the darkest situations. He made us laugh even as he made us shudder.

Hichcock began his career in England, building his reputation with such sharp and sophisticated thrillers as "The Thirty-nine Steps," "The Lady Vanishes," and the 1935 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much." Even the almost-forgotten films of his earliest years show flashes of great brilliance -- one thinks of the personality tensions in "The Manxman" and the behavioral subtleties of "The Skin Game."

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Some of today's critics maintain that Hitchcock made his greatest films during his British years, and he was prone to agree that his work was less "commercial" and somehow more "pure" in those days. Many perceptive observers concur with widespread popular opinion, however, recognizing that Hitchcock's films continued to deepen and mature long into his Hollywood period, which commenced in 1940 with "Rebecca." Hitchcock reached the summit of his career in the '50s, creating his greatest works of art while working with the biggest budgets, the fanciest equipment, and the most celebrated stars.

That decade alone gave us "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Rear Window," "Strangers on a Train," "To Catch a Thief," and a remake of "The Man Who Knew Too Much," along with five other films that don't happen to be masterpieces! Such an output is enough to make one gasp, even without remembering that it was all accomplished within the space of 10 years. Had Hitchcock worked only during the 1950s, he would stand as one of the supreme artists in Hollywood history.

Like Dickens in literature, and like his filmmaking contemporaries John Ford and Howard Hawks, Hitchcock proved that the most polished artistry can go hand in hand with enormous popular success. Yet the popularity of his films tended to deter "serious" consideration of his work. This situation -- almost astonishing in retrospect -- began to reverse when Francois Truffaut and other French critics discovered his films around 25 years ago.

Looking beneath the clever stories and flamboyant effects, these scrupulous observers saw evidence of consistent themes and complex moral insights coursing through the body of his work. Soon popular appreciation was supplemented with scholarly tracts outlining the implicit Hitchcock philosophy, and noting the particular obsessions that gave Hitchcock movies their special resonance. General understanding of his films was greatly enriched by the discovery of Hitchcock's preoccupation with the hidden deviltries of seemingly "good" characters; his tendency to equate knowledge with danger; his frequent use of personality transference as a plot device; and his fascination with the blurry boundary line between the very concepts of guilt and innocence.

His appreciators -- the countless Hitchcockians -- continue to revere the extraordinary efficiency, transparency, rhythmic excitement, and plain good humor that characterized so many of the master's most suspenseful movies.

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